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... Spelling Was King At the Cherry Festival

Blue Angels flew, Tanya Tucker sang, and Tom's Mom's Cafe served cherry everything, but...

IT was the word ``wolfishly'' that took a bite out of 102-year-old Bessie Anderson's spelling prowess. She mistakenly added an ``e'' next to the ``l'' and was eliminated in the second round of the spelling tournament in the huge yellow- and white-striped bingo tent.

Still, she came away with a red balloon tied to her wheelchair. And of course, cherries and cherry products were everywhere at the 68th annual National Cherry Festival held here last week. The Blue Angels from the United States Navy were here. So was country singer Tanya Tucker, Buckwheat Zydeco, and National Cherry Queen Ami Curtiss.

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There were gooey-cherry-pie eating contests, dozens of carnival rides, and Tom's Mom's Cafe downtown had cherry everything on the menu. On Saturday, the parade with bands, floats, and clowns thrilled 100,000 spectators on Front Street.

But it was the Senior Spelling Tournament last Friday that had more tension than a Blue Angels flyover. With Achsa Hulbert from Kalkaska County as the word pronouncer, some 20 contestants were seated around the long wooden table with pencils in hand.

Most were veteran crossword-puzzle doers, Scrabble players, or anagram lovers. In the first round the only tricky word was ``cajole'' misspelled by a few with an ``h'' added or the ``e'' dropped. But when the round was over, and most contestants forgot an ``o'' or a ``l'' in a word or two, only four ladies, including Bessie Anderson, had spelled all 15 words correctly.

In the second round, while spicy aromas from a nearby sausage and hot dog stand, wafted through the tent, Mrs. Hulbert read the words. A photographer from the Traverse City Record Eagle arrived and angled her camera at the tense contestants.

When Hulbert said ``wolfishly,'' Mrs. Anderson, for many years the wife of an Iowa farmer, and mother of four children, added the misbegotten ``e'' to the word. ``I always loved words,'' she said, describing farming as a ``hard but good life'' and spelling as ``good but hard.''

After the vowels cleared, three ladies surged into the third round of competition. (The second round contained the notorious word ``commit,'' which legions of educated people have misspelled ``committ'' for years).

In the third round all words were checked and double-checked. ``Dawdler'' (one who dawdles) was the word that tripped up one of the three remaining spellers. Cornelia Hart, a retired secretary, and Lilly Wells, a clinical psychologist, became fourth-round finalists.

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``Now we'll take it one word at a time,'' said Hulbert, as the kiddy train tooted by the spelling-bee tent with all the little kids waving.

``The first word is `vacuity,' the quality of being empty,'' Hulbert said.

Pencils scribbled. Judges checked. Both correct.

``The next word is `pleodont,''' Hulbert said, ``meaning having solid teeth.'' A gentle breeze came off Lake Michigan and moved through the tent.

Pencils scribbled. Judges checked. Mrs. Wells misspelled the word as ``pleaodont.''

``And now,'' Hulbert said, as all eyes fell on Cornelia Hart, ``the last word.'' Ms. Hart smoothed the colorful scarf around her neck. She was ready, eyes narrowed in homage to all the crossword puzzles that had improved her vocabulary over the years.

``The word is `vaccinoid,''' Hulbert said, ``having to do with a reaction to a vaccination.''

Without blinking an eye, Hart wrote the word. Judges checked. ``And the winner is Cornelia Hart!''

``I'm thrilled,'' Hart said, as she was presented a plaque. ``I guess all the years of playing Scrabble and doing crossword puzzles paid off.'' The kiddy train tooted by again, filled with the future spellers of America.

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