Craig Bucki can't remember a time when he wasn't a good speller.
In five years of spelling tests at St. Gregory the Great School, he never missed a word. He competed in The Buffalo News Spelling Bee three times, winning it and a spot in the National Spelling Bee twice. I watched in awe as he and his colleagues from Phillips Lytle won the local Corporate Spelling Bee in 2008 by spelling words that I never heard before or since. (Near the end, I'm pretty sure they started making up words to trick him, and he got those right, too.)
"Spelling was always something that just came to me," he said last week.
As the Scripps National Spelling Bee approached last week, I contacted him because I wondered what becomes of the kids who become celebrities in their hometowns as middle schoolers and whether their moment in the national spotlight is a peak or just a first step on a long climb.
It was very much the latter for Bucki. The Spelling Bee led to a love of language that became a love of speaking as a debater and a mock trial competitor at Canisius High School. From there, it was on to Yale for his undergraduate degree, then Columbia for his law degree and then on to his law career -- minus a brief hiatus during an unsuccessful run for the Assembly last year.
He said he still looks forward to the National Spelling Bee, where he competed in 1995 and 1996 and then later helped staff the press table for eight years.
As we sat in his offices near the top of One HSBC Center and watched the competition on ESPN, he said he was fortunate that his parents, Carl and Deborah Bucki, encouraged him to pursue his gift without pushing him. His father suggested going to watch The Buffalo News Spelling Bee the year before Craig was eligible, to see if he wanted to compete at that level.
"My parents presented me with the opportunity. But I wanted to do it because I was good at it," he said. "It was something that I enjoyed and I found meaning from and I found it as an opportunity to take a bit of knowledge -- that probably to a lot of people might seem esoteric -- and have some success. Being able to go on the trip to Washington was a wonderful perk."
Bucki won the local Bee in seventh and eighth grades, winning an epic one-on-one battle with Rachel Moran in his last year of eligibility. Does he remember the final words? Of course, he does. She misspelled "epizootic," and he correctly spelled it and then "kinkajou."
From there, it was on to D.C., where he finished in 59th place in 1995 -- going out on "tergiversation" -- and 103rd in 1996 on "ensuant."
Nine years after his first appearance as a competitor, he was asked to be the guest speaker and address the national competitors at a banquet that concludes the Bee festivities. He was invited back in 2007.
He told the children he knew that a lot of them were disappointed. (Let's face it: Some of these kids might never have misspelled a word in a competition in their lives, and the first time they do it, people see it on "SportsCenter.") But getting to this level is something only a very few people in the world can say they did.
The second thing he said is that it didn't really matter what place they came in or what word they misspelled.
"What matters," he said, "is how you use this experience as a springboard for the rest of your life."
For Craig Bucki, it fostered a love of the language that led to the Ivy League and a law career.
It also provided a definitive answer to the question: Does spelling count?