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What's a Little Wordplay Among Friends?


The word that won it for Cyrus McCown, 85, was "schizophrenia." But, if you ask us, it was providential.

How else to explain that McCown, a retired Presbyterian minister, bested a field of 16 other spellers--septuagenarians, octogenarians and up--to take home the trophy?

Or that the runner-up, Ruth Smith, 79, was being cheered on by her husband, Stanley, a retired Methodist minister?

We were in the Sky Room of the Kingsley Manor in Hollywood, which was hosting contestants from five other retirement communities at the 12th annual grand spelling bee of the California Assn. of Homes and Services for the Aging.

It would be 12 rounds to the finish, and may the best man win. An unlikely prospect, it seemed at first, as only two of the 17 hopefuls were men. Still, McCown, competing for Monte Vista Grove Homes in Pasadena, served notice right off, breezing through "weird" and "grovel."

"I tell you, he's going to be the last one," said a dejected Edna Bongart, who earlier had won Kingsley Manor's in-house spell-off to earn a spot here. She'd just struck out on "eloquence." "I can't believe it. Every darned word I spelled right, except my own."

Over 90 minutes, they fell, one by one. It wasn't always the tough words that tripped them up. They got "meridian" and "Mackinaw," "zephyr" and "zeppelin," only to be sabotaged by "quarrelsome," "murderess" and "obnoxious."

The first little flap came in round one. The word: "Judgment." J-u-d-g-e-m-e-n-t, spelled the contestant. Wrong, objected a woman in the audience. The trio of judges consulted Webster's New World large print dictionary and, sure enough, there was "judgement," a correct if not the preferred spelling.

Later, taking no chances, one contestant would spell "dialogue" both with and without the "ue," and another, having correctly spelled "fiance," mentioned that there's an accent on that e.

"Enchilada" elicited another audience protest--"You're not supposed to have foreign words." Once more, the judges huddled. The verdict: It's in the dictionary. (Indeed, a few years back the $5,000 winner of the national spelling bee for kids younger than 16 did it by spelling "enchilada" and "kamikaze").

The spell-master, Lynn Wallace, assistant principal of nearby Ramona Elementary School, moved among the contestants with her mike, reading words and definitions from 3x5 cards, reminding those in the audience not to "assist your friends," not even by mouthing the letters.

The parade of words continued. "Rhythm" and "rutabaga," "hubbub" and "haughty," "plagiarism" and "parachute" posed no problems, but "seismic," "tungsten," "neuritis," "resilience" and "bureaucracy" proved to be bummers.

The real rhubarb (which, yes, was also a spelling word) arose over "expatriate." McCown faltered here, but one judge contended that Wallace had mispronounced the word in the context of the sentence, thus confusing him. Given a reprieve, he scored with a substitute word, "subpoena."

Defending champ Retta Newlin of St. John of God in Los Angeles, having scored cleanly with "ptomaine," then stumbled on "meticulous." McCown remained afloat.

Bongart leaned over and whispered, "I told you he was going to be the last one."

Elizabeth Cheney, representing Solheim Lutheran Home in Eagle Rock, had inexplicably faltered on "prairie," spelling it "prairy." "Isn't that ridiculous!" she said later. Obviously, a retired librarian knows her prairies from her prairys.


And then there were two--McCown and Smith. He took a deep breath and spelled "streptococcus," the word he later confided was the one he most feared. She countered with "silhouette." He spelled "irrelevant." She spelled "pharmaceutical"; he countered with "aesthetics."

Then, disaster struck Smith. The word: "logarithm." She furrowed her brow--"I'm no mathematician"--and gave it her best shot. "I'm sorry," said the spell-master.

Now, only one word--"schizophrenia"--stood between McCown and the gold.

"Cyrus, that was terrific!" said Bruce Udelf, Kingsley Manor administrator, handing over the traveling trophy to the tall, dapper champion.

"I told you he was going to be the last one," said Bongart.

McCown hadn't had much experience at these things. They didn't have them in his grade school in Leechburg, Pa. "It's funny," he said, "to wait for somebody to stumble."

Runner-up Smith, a schoolteacher for 18 years, credited Scrabble with much of her spelling prowess. "I call her Seven-Letter Smith," said Iva Lee Adkins, another regular at Kingsley Manor's Monday night games.

Then Smith confided, "My dictionary gets used more than my Bible does."

Perhaps it wasn't providence, after all.

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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