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In 1975, Mary Brockenbrough Sears won the Greater Philadelphia Spelling Bee to represent Philly in the nationals in Washington DC.
Then a 13-year-old eighth grader at W.E. Shue Middle School in Newark, Del., she had a memorable time at the 48th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee — including getting randomly stuck in an elevator with a popular TV star.
Today, Sears lives in Lexington, Mass., and is head of public services at the Ernst Mayr Library of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where she says her bee experiences still come in handy.
Back then, the regional bee was sponsored by The Evening and Sunday Philadelphia Bulletin, which ceased publication in 1982. (The paper’s former home in West Philly has been renovated as headquarters for biotech firm Spark Therapeutics, but you can still see the Bulletin name in lights.)
This year, Philly’s regional bee is being sponsored by WHYY and Billy Penn for the first time.
The WHYY-Billy Penn Regional Spelling Bee will be held Saturday, March 26, at Penn Alexander School. The winner will advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will be held the week of Memorial Day at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. Actor LeVar Burton will serve as host of the national semifinals on June 1 and the finals on June 2, both of which will be televised on Ion and Bounce.
While this year’s National Spelling Bee is expected to draw more than 200 contestants, the 1975 national competition had only 79 competitors. Headquartered in the stately old Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., the spelling competition lasted only two days and was sandwiched into a week of sightseeing and parties for the spellers and their families.
Sears said she has many great memories of the National Spelling Bee, but one really stands out: being s-t-u-c-k in a hotel elevator with Grandpa Walton.
Will Geer, the actor who played Grandpa Walton on the popular 1970s TV show “The Waltons,” was there to film a TV special about the National Spelling Bee. During the week, he mingled with the spellers and their families, went on sightseeing excursions with them, and performed a monologue for them.
“My family watched ‘The Waltons’ every week, so he was a very familiar face,” Sears said.
Sears was among about a half dozen people — mostly spellers and family members — who were in the stopped elevator with Geer for about 30 minutes.
“He was so cool and friendly,” Sears recalled. “He kept us chatting. He was wonderful and kept everyone at ease until we were able to get out.”
Another one of Sears’ favorite memories was taking a VIP tour of the White House where First Lady Betty Ford greeted the spellers and their families from a balcony overlooking the Rose Garden.
Sears also said she enjoyed meeting kids from all over the United States. “Chatting with the other spellers was wonderful. Everyone was thrilled to be there and very friendly.”
Today’s National Spelling Bee competitors often hire professional coaches to prep them for competition, but Sears and many of the 1975 contestants relied on family members or teachers to drill them on words from the National Spelling Bee’s official practice book, “Words of the Champions.”
Though practice was sometimes tedious, it was worth the effort.
“I’m not much of a sports person,” Sears said, “so spelling bees were a competition I could enjoy.”
In Washington, Sears made it through the first day of competition, but missed the first word she got on Day 2. Her nemesis was “gonfalon,” which is a banner or pennant. She spelled it “g-o-n-f-a-l-l-o-n.”
“I had not seen ‘gonfalon’ on the study list, and it was a new word for me,” she said. “After I started working for Harvard, I saw the word often. ‘The Gonfalon’ was the title of a Radcliffe College journal for many years. Every time I see it, I remember the spelling bee and being in the eighth grade.”
Sears placed 21st and won $50 in prize money.
The winner of the 1975 National Spelling Bee was Hugh Tosteson Garcia of Puerto Rico, the first contestant from outside the 50 states to win. He received $1,000, a trophy cup, a plaque, and a ruby-set medal.
Sears went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music at Wellesley College, outside of Boston, and a master’s degree in library and information sciences at Simmons College, now Simmons University, in Boston.
Lessons from her spelling bee experiences have stayed with her over the decades.
“In my job, I’m constantly working with scientific names, and spelling is important,” Sears said. “I learned the importance of details and persistence.”