By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Mike Shott and Keith Blevins launched the Twin-State Marketer in April, 1986, my job was to write one editorial per week and keep the Commercial Printing Co. shop operating. By that time, I had spent eight months learning the printing trade from Felix Nigro, but I really didn’t know much about anything. Mike knew business, Keith knew newspapers and I took every creative writing class West Virginia University offered in the 1970s. I even took the ones I failed twice.
I already had a writing reputation that dated back to 1983 when I wrote society-oriented feature stories for June Grubb. But I wasn’t one of the elite members of the local Fifth Estate. As a result, I was shocked when Jerry Conner tabbed me to be a homecoming float judge at the Concord University homecoming parade in the fall of 1986. That was one thing, but I finally thought I had arrived in the spring of 1987 when Mercer County Schools selected me to be a judge at the spelling bee in the auditorium of the Alexander Fine Arts Center on the CU campus.
I’m a horrible speller and always have been. The spell-check key on most modern computers makes me even worse of a speller, but fortunately, spelling bee judges are allowed to be as unintelligent as a box of rocks because everything in the competition book is spelled out for you. As a judge, I’m certain I sounded as erudite as Aristotle, but in truth, I was merely a buffoon with a title: “Executive Editor” of a weekly paper. Linda Dague beat me in the sixth grade spelling bee at East-West Finley School, and I never recovered from that defeat.
Every January when Mercer County Spelling Bee time rolled around, I could expect a call from the central office so I would know when to wear a suit to work that month.
During the first few years, local celebrities served with me as judges, but after her daughters graduated from the ranks of the spelling bee ranks, Jean Beasley took a seat beside me at the judges table. During the following 14- or 15-year period, Jean and I did one thing together every year.
Of course, she instantly knew that I was a fraud. I’m sure she didn’t know the particulars of how Linda Dague beat me mercilessly in an early round, but she knew so much stuff that it would have been easy for her to dissect my educational shortcomings. She never did. That wasn’t her style. She accepted me as another humble community servant who simply wanted to help kids walk up on stage, look out on an audience of people and overcome all of the emotional challenges of public speaking and spell words correctly.
I truly didn’t know Jean until our first bee when one young man walked up to the microphone and misspelled a word. In the instant it took for him to omit a letter from the word he had been given, I thought he had made a mistake, but I looked down at the judge’s pamphlet to make myself certain. That took about a second, but when I looked over at Jean, her eyes melted me.
I could tell that she knew about the mistake, but she also saw the context of the young man who stood so erect and displayed such pride. In that moment, I understood that the spelling bee was more than a competition. Jean’s eyes told me it was a teaching moment. She hesitated before hitting the buzzer long enough for me to understood everything she knew before I reached out and hit the buzzer. Jean calmly explained the spelling error to the young man in a way that was supportive and encouraging. Through the years, she did that for a lot of students while I hit the buzzer.
From that moment on, we became a team as spelling bee judges. Before the start of the bees and during breaks, we talked and got to know each other. In my mind, I give Jean at least partial credit for the idea to work on the community celebration in May of 1995, honoring Nobel Laureate John F. Nash Jr. I was on the school improvement council at Wade Elementary at the time, and was always searching for ways to encourage students to stay focused and stay in school. Jean and I talked a lot about ways to stimulate young students to aspire to reach the highest level of education they could reach.
A month ago, during the Concord-Athens Town Social when I asked for Jean, a friend told me that she was having some health issues and said her prognosis wasn’t good. I was at least partially prepared when I learned of her passing earlier this week. What a joy it was for me to have so many years of memories of the great fellowship that goes along with having a true friend. Of course, Jean and I saw each other at dinners, college functions and the annual town social, and in each of those times, we shared a very special bond as though we were each part of a team of horses, strapped in our harnesses and pulling a wagon that no one knew was even moving. But all those spelling bees were so much fun. What a joy! What a remarkable joy!
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.