Editor’s Note April 2, 2023 at 4:48 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled the Maine town Madawaska. The correct spelling is Madawaska, not Maddawaska.
Last week’s Maine State Spelling Bee, hosted in Studzinski Recital Hall, started off like most others. The pronouncer was at the front, the spellers were on the stage and four words hung in the air: “there’s only one winner.”
That winner was Portland seventh-grader Evan Trieu. But according to Portland Press Herald sports writer and Bee pronouncer Glenn Jordan, the competition isn’t between students, but something else.
“It’s not like they’re battling against each other, they’re all battling against the dictionary,” Jordan said.
Twenty four students from as far as Madawska and as close as down the street gathered in Kanbar Auditorium on March 25 to compete for the chance to represent Maine in the 95th Scripps National Spelling Bee this May.
As the event’s traditional location, the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall, was unavailable due to scheduling issues, the College was introduced as an alternative. The new locale allowed for the event to be slightly more conveniently located according to Chris Sobiech, Executive Assistant at MaineToday Media at the Portland Press Herald, who has been in charge of the Maine state spelling bee for the past 13 years.
“A lot of the spellers and finalists and champions from their own counties are coming from all over the state of Maine. We had Aroostook County, Androscoggin County, Penobscot … all over,” Sobiech said.
Al Bugbee ’91 is the Regional Vice President of Operations at Dead River Company, the lead sponsor of the Maine State Spelling Bee for several years.
“I was given a few minutes to say hello to the finalists and their families and wish them good luck,” Bugbee said in an email to the Orient. “It was energizing to be back on campus and see the continued investment in infrastructure. When I graduated in 1991, I believe Studzinski Hall was an old inground pool. To see it turned into the beautiful Kanbar Auditorium was impressive.”
The space’s acoustics were also a huge asset to the bee, according to Sobiech.
“We were just so thrilled. It’s a beautiful space. And it’s perfect for a spelling bee—the acoustics and everything,” Sobiech said. “It’s all about the mics, and the judges and the pronouncers really have to hear the spellers.”
Twelve out of the sixteen counties in Maine, represented by 65 schools, participated in the bee.
The number of schools involved, according to Sobiech, dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic. Thirteen years ago, when Sobiech began her role, there were 120 schools.
“I hope it sticks up in the other direction,” Sobiech said.
In previous years, the spelling bee invited a single finalist from each county. This year, in an effort to include more students in the tradition, each county’s champion and first runner-up took the stage.
“They put so much time and effort into studying and preparing for this and just, I guess, seeing them come to this, this level in this moment … you get so attached to them, you want them all to do well and to win,” Sobiech said.
Jordan is familiar with the stakes and holds deep spelling bee nostalgia. A winner of a corporate spelling bee and the father of three local spelling bee champions, Jordan’s family is filled with devoted spellers, so much so that they sometimes make a fantasy speller draft for the Scripps bee.
“The nerd blood runs strong,” Jordan said. “It’s a wonderful little thing. It’s great theater and some of the words are just ridiculous.”
For Trieu, the theatrics aren’t over yet. Sponsored by the Portland Press Herald, he and his family will travel to Maryland for the Scripps National Spelling Bee Bee Week from May 28 to June 3.
“We’re very proud of him that he’ll be representing the state of Maine at the national level,” Sobiech said.