The 281 spellers that are whittled down from the 11 million students that compete in school and regional bees aren’t the only ones working hard to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., each year.
A team of 11 bee employees works year-round from the Scripps corporate office in Cincinnati, Ohio, to make Bee Week special.
During Bee Week, the year-round staff is joined by six officials and 42 production staffers.
What inspires such passion to help the longest-running educational program in the country keep running?
For some, prior involvement in the bee.
Executive Director Paige Kimble is the 1981 national spelling bee champion and the 1980 runner-up. She’s been serving the program in various capacities for 30 years, including 17 years as executive director.
How did she come to be executive director of the bee?
“On a non-strategic basis, “ Kimble said wryly.
After volunteering for the bee in Washington, D.C., during her high school and college years and maintaining strong ties with the program, Kimble (then Pipkin) planned to teach.
In fact, she was about to start a teaching job in Texas when she first heard of an open position with the bee in Cincinnati.
“The day I spent all my money on classroom supplies, I heard of an open position in Cincinnati,” Kimble said. “So I packed up my Toyota and grabbed my cocker spaniel.”
Though pronouncer Jacques Bailly isn’t a year-round staffer, the associate professor of classics at the University of Vermont is the 1980 national champion. This is Bailly’s 12th year as pronouncer, after serving 12 years as associate pronouncer.
During those 20-some years, Bailly has also helped as a “sort of” editor of the spelling bee word list.
The process of choosing of words for the bee is regarded as top secret, according to Chris Kemper, communications and public relations manager of the bee.
“It is true that Jacques is on the word committee,” Kemper said via email. “But beyond that, the members of the team and their process is secret.”
Though the tantalizing process of how exactly words are selected remains hidden, how Bailly came to be involved with the bee again is decidedly less mysterious.
After his 1980 bee win, Bailly kept in touch with local bees in his area, and worked with some of them. His mother also became a sort-of spelling bee coach, and was heavily involved in the Rocky Mountain News Spelling Bee, which sponsored Bailly in 1980. Bailly worked with her when he could, helping to coach spellers.
In 1990, when he was in Switzerland studying for two years, Bailly wrote to the spelling bee staff.
“I wrote to the bee, said I learned German, Latin, Greek, a little Arabic and had improved my French,” Bailly said. “I asked them, ‘Do you ever have any need for anyone who has my skill set?’”
The answer, it seems, was yes.
In addition to being a pronouncer, Bailly also does voice recordings for the spelling bee website.
When it comes to the attention he receives as a pronouncer, Bailly is modest.
“I just have the front row audience seat and I’m embarrassed by the attention I get,” Bailly said. “I read a script I get coached on, and I get credit for it.”
Judges Blake Giddens and George Thampy are also former bee champions, winning in 1983 and 2000, respectively.
Program Manager Corrie Loeffler is a former 3-time national bee participant, attending in 1994, 1995 and 1996, and tying for sixth place in 1996. This is her eighth year on the bee’s permanent staff, after serving six years on Bee Week staff.
Being so close to the action at the bee can be a familiar experience for some.
“I still find myself with the same feelings, heart pounding, dry mouth,” Kimble said.
Even those who have never been in the national bee are affected by it.
“Even in the preliminary rounds, the crowd is living and dying with each correct and incorrect spelling,” Kemper said. “Even Wednesday at 8 a.m.”
For Kimble, though the show and the excitement is great, what it’s really about is the long-term payoff.
“I get emotional thinking about how their lives are going to change as a result of this experience,” Kimble said. “The trip to DC, the discipline they’ve developed, the experience of standing before an audience of that size, those are life-changing experiences and I sense them. I feel a great deal of pride because I know its going to be a great benefit to them later in life.”