From the Sunday, March 29, 1998, Wisconsin State Journal.

50 YEARS OF B-E-E-ING

STATE SPELLING COMPETITION CELEBRATES A HALF CENTURY

Thinking back on the 39 years he worked with the Badger Spelling Bee, Donald K. Davies can sum up his main concern in two words: "Buckets'' and "mops.''

"You see, in the early years, we used to invite all the kids who came to the state bee to a lunch at a fancy restaurant, where they could order anything they wanted from the menu,'' Davies recalls.

"Well, what would happen is these kids would come down from other parts of the state and order shrimp and other rich foods. Then, they'd get up on the stage under all that pressure and, sooner or later, one would get sick. We'd always have someone standing by with a mop and a bucket to clean up.''

The Badger Spelling Bee celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Davies, a former Wisconsin State Journal features editor and television writer, was associated with the bee from 1953 to 1992 and was director of the event for 33 years.

Those were years of great pride and great comedy, he says.

From an achievement standpoint, the bee's high point came in 1991 when Joanne Lagatta, a student from Clintonville, not only won the state bee but went on to win the National Spelling Bee, the only time a Wisconsin student has been national champion.

A year later, her younger brother, Andy, won the state bee.

Lagatta is now a junior at UW-Madison, where she is a pre-medicine student. Her brother is a freshman at UW-Madison, studying engineering.

Davies said his most vivid memory is of Jennifer Nelson, who won the Madison All-City Bee in 1980. In the state competition, she failed to spell "profiterole,'' the name of a small cream puff.

"The thing about Jennifer was that she was deaf,'' Davies says. "Her teacher would get up and give her the words in sign language and then she'd spell them.

"What made the whole thing difficult is that the way you'd normally give a weird word to a deaf person would be to spell it in sign language — but, obviously, you can't do that in a spelling bee.''

Nelson wasn't the only physically disabled person to achieve in the bees. The Badger Spelling Bee's very first winner, Charlotte Kreul, was born with spina bifida.

Winners of the state bee travel to Washington, accompanied by parents or teachers or both. For a number of years, Davies was there, too.

"We always wanted to make it special for the kids — so I was always buying a little better dinner than we could afford on our expense account,'' he says. "I went every year, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the kids, and often, for their parents, too.''

Warren Jollymore, the first director of the Badger Spelling Bee, went on to become a General Motors public relations staff member — he was in charge of PR for Chevrolet and Cadillac — but never lost his love of the bee, Davies says.

"When we'd go to the national bee, Jolly would come up from Detroit and treat the family and make a big deal of the achievement,'' Davies recalls.

Still, those mops and buckets remain in Davies' memory.

"We finally caught on to the root of the problem and, from then on, we served a standard lunch of hamburgers and french fries,'' he says. "That usually eliminated the upchucking — but, I can tell you, it got us some irritated comments from the teachers, who always looked forward to that fancy restaurant meal.''

 

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