Elders come up short of words in State Fair spell-off - Quad-Cities Online: Iowa

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Elders come up short of words in State Fair spell-off

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Posted: Thursday, August 20, 1998 1:00 am | Updated: 3:44 pm, Mon Apr 21, 2014.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Wilmoth Nichols spelled ``debauchery'' without flinching but was almost robbed of the championship of the Senior Spelling Bee at the Iowa State Fair.

After 17 rounds of competition Wednesday, Nichols and the spelling bee ran into a barrier that seemed i-n-s-u-r-m-o-u-n-t-a-b-l-e.

``We're out of words,'' one of the judges said to a chorus of groans.

``Wait,'' said word-reader Mary Sherer, brandishing a page torn out of Readers' Digest. ``I've got more words.''

Nearly 20 seniors had entered the spelling bee, one of the highlights of the State Fair's Older Iowans Day. Other activities included an Alzheimer's Association ``Jog Your Memory'' presentation, horseshoe pitching and chess contests and a performance by the Dancin' Grannies. The fair continues through Sunday.

At the spelling bee, it was a good day for horticulturists and hunters, though there probably were quite a few more of the former than the latter. Spirea, petunia, cactus and perennial; pigeon, mallard, quail and covey -- competitors with a handle on nature nouns had the edge.

Not so Norris Hale, the University of Nebraska at Omaha football team's kicking coach. Hale, who lives most of the time in Pella, was the first one called on and the first one stumped, all because he was unfamiliar with the shade-loving groundcover, the hosta.

``I never heard of them,'' said Hale, who as a youth in Cortland, Neb., had been a district and county spelling champ. ``It's kind of embarrassing -- like losing a game you're supposed to win.''

The field was whittled down slowly, reaching Nichols of Arispe and co-finalist Marian Ballinger of Des Moines. Ballinger, the defending champion, sat with legs crossed and a faint smile on her face, unfazed even by ``chassis,'' ``connoisseur'' and ``victuals.''

Nichols, who was wearing a T-shirt that said V-J Day and showed a mushroom cloud, was equally implacable. Nearly every time it was her turn, a thunderous rumble from the nearby tractor pull interrupted, and she had to wait patiently to give her answer. When she did, she all but spit the letters out, rapid-fire.

Ballinger would meet her Waterloo with one of several foreign-language-derived words that peppered the mix: ``metamorphosis.'' Nichols was offered the same word to spell correctly. She spelled metamorphosis and capped the victory with ``unilateral.''

Nichols, 73, credited her lifelong love of crossword puzzles and cryptograms for her success. The mother of five boys and a retired grain elevator operator with her husband, she proudly pronounced that she had never gone to college.

``I don't know,'' she said, ``words and semantics are just things I enjoy.''

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