After a paring down of contestants from a total of 36 teams, the Geezer Geeks, a crowd favorite, looked to defeat the one team that stood in the path of a potential, cane-raising victory.
Another geriatric-themed team, the AARP Misfits, was having none of it.
The scene played out on the Dodds Theater Stage at the University of New Haven campus before a packed audience and contestants ready to demonstrate their spelling prowess in the second annual New Haven Reads Spelling Bee and fundraiser.
Teams were dressed in an array of inventive costumes with equally colorful titles representing mostly local establishments. The first and second place winners came from distant states to help “support literacy.”
The spelling bee’s emcee, meteorologist and broadcaster Matt Scott, described the event as being “one part community gathering, one -part game show,” to which he could easily have added, one part comedy show. He and co-host Ann Nyberg, WTNH-TV’s long-serving news anchor, set the tone for much of the hilarity and good spirit that kept the audience engaged and laughing throughout the contest.
Interviewed before the program, Nyberg underscored the serious side of the event and the reason for the Spelling Bee: “You can’t get ahead in life if you can’t read” she said. The mission of the event’s sponsor, New Haven Reads (a book bank and tutoring program based in the Dixwell neighborhood), is “to share the joy and power of reading.” The mission seemed to be shared by most contestants, whose entry fees represented the bulk of the fundraiser.
“Tutoring is important. We look up to New Haven Reads a lot,” said Anjali Vasavada 17, speaking for the “Bee a Sweetheart” team and representing Claire’s Corner Copia. “We don’t care about competing. It’s really about the cause.”
The New Haven Reads cause is all about providing literacy programs, free of charge, to greater New Haven area families. Programs are made possible by the 375 volunteers who deliver one-on-one tutoring in reading from kindergarten and pre-K classes through high school, including SAT prep. The organization’s book bank delivered 130,000 books last year alone, to teachers, community centers, soup kitchens and other not-forprofit organizations.
Thirty-six three-person teams competed against one another Friday evening in groups of six, called swarms. The winners of each swarm then competed in the final round as words became increasingly difficult. A moment of high drama ensued when the competition’s word master and judge, Ray Andrewsen, apparently flubbed on the ruling of the word “supersede,” ruling “supercede” incorrect. An alert “Bee a Sweetheart” team member offstage kept the judging “honest’ by interjecting with her handy smart phone, noting that the spelling “supercede,” is also a correct variant of the word. All teams were given credit for correct spelling.
Other judges included Nancy McNicol, associate director of of Hamden public libraries, Stacy Spell, a retired New Haven detective and West River community activist, and Yale University Police Chief Ronnell Higgins, who addressed the audience briefly. “Anytime you’re having a bad day, walk into New Haven Reads and see the children and volunteers,” he said.
Going into the final round, word master Andrewsen reached deep into the bench for a word that would separate the victors from the vanquished, reading the Inuit word “Piblokto,” meaning a condition characterized by attacks of disturbed behavior such as screaming and crying that occurs chiefly in winter.
The victorious AARP Misfits included among them a retired lobbyist for the cosmetic industry, a clinical psychologist and an English professor.
New Haven Reads Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn said this year’s Spelling Bee was as much fun as the first: “I loved that everyone stayed till the end.”
For more information about New Haven Reads click here.