The oldest living National Spelling Bee champion reflects on his victory 70 years later – Hartford Courant

By HOLLY RAMER and RODRIQUE NGOWI (Associated Press)

EAST GREENWICH, R.I. (AP) — In medical school and throughout his career as a neonatologist, William Cashore was often asked to proofread the work of others. Little did they know he was a spelling champion, with a trophy at home to prove it.

“They knew I had a very good sense of words and that I could spell correctly,” he said. “So when they were writing something, they would ask me to check it.”

Cashore won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1954 at the age of 14. Now 84 years old, he is the oldest living champion of the competition, which dates back to 1925. As the participants of this year’s competition went home, he reflected on his experiences and the impact they had had. at him.

“It was one of the biggest events of my life at the time,” he said in an interview at his home in Rhode Island. “It’s still something I think about with great pleasure.”

Cashore credits his parents for helping him prepare for his trip to Washington, D.C., for the spelling bee. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father a laboratory technician with a talent for “taking words apart and putting them back together.”

“It was important for them, and for me, to get things in order,” he said. “But I never felt the pressure to win. I just felt pressure to do my best, and some of that came from within.”

When the field was narrowed to two, the other boy misspelled “uncinated,” which means “bent like a hook.” Cashore spelled it correctly and then captioned it with the word “transept,” an architectural term for the transverse portion of a cruciform church.

“I knew that word. I wasn’t asked to spell it, but it was an easy word for me to spell,” he recalled.

Cashore, who was given $500 and an encyclopedia set, enjoyed a brief turn as a celebrity, including meeting then-Vice President Richard Nixon and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. He didn’t brag about his achievement after returning to Norristown, Pennsylvania, but the experience quietly shaped him in more ways than one.

“It gave me a lot more confidence and also made me feel like it’s really important to try to get things as correct as possible,” he said. “I always have been, and I still feel that way. When people are careless with spelling and writing, you wonder if they are careless with their thinking.”

Preparing for a spelling bee today requires more concentration and technique than it did decades ago, Cashore said.

“The vocabulary of the words is much, much more technical,” he said. “The English language has now imported a large number of words from foreign languages ​​that were not part of the English language when I was in eighth grade,” he said.

Babbel, which offers foreign language education through its app and live online courses, followed Cashore before this year’s spelling bee, interested in whether he had learned other languages ​​before his big win. He hadn’t done that, other than picking up a few words from Pennsylvania Dutch, but told the company that he believes learning another language “gives you a perspective on your own language and insight into the thinking and processes of the other language and culture.”

Although he has only fond memories of the 1954 competition, Cashore said it was just the beginning of a long, happy life.

“The reward is not so much what happened to me in the spelling bee, but the family I have and the people who supported me along the way,” he said.


Ramer reported from Concord, New Hampshire.

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