When Lauren Matz entered last Saturday’s national spelling bee, she finally got a chance to avenge her defeat from more than four decades ago.
The year was 1972 and Matz – then Lauren Pringle – came oh so close to winning the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. as an eighth-grader at All Saints School in Buffalo.
The 13-year-old from Riverside tripped up on her 21st word – garnet – when she added an “e” at the end.
She came in second place.
Forty-one years later, Matz got a second chance for a national title at Saturday’s AARP National Spelling Bee in Cheyenne, Wyo.
And wouldn’t you know it, she was one of the last two standing.
“I can’t remember well enough how I felt in 1972,” said Matz, now an English professor at St. Bonaventure University, “but I was nervous on Saturday, because I knew these were excellent spellers.”
Could she win this time?
Matz, now 54, of Olean, has always had the spelling bug, even after losing the 45th National Spelling Bee to a 14-year-old boy from Lamesa, Texas on June 8, 1972.
For years, Matz has forced her freshman composition students at Bonaventure to compete in a class spelling bee, with Matz doling out large crossword puzzle books to the winners.
Several years ago, her sister, Susan Scharf of Springville, suggested she compete in the AARP National Senior Spelling Bee. In January, Matz started training with an old friend: Merriam-Webster.
“I was totally old school,” Matz said by phone on Thursday. “I bought a copy of the dictionary and bought a stack of stenopads. I just started browsing the dictionary and writing down words I didn’t know how to spell, looked challenging or had fascinating etymology.”
Matz and her family made the trip to Cheyenne for the 18th annual spelling bee for competitors over 50, which featured 26 spellers from 16 states.
She scored 98 out of 100 on a written spelling test on Friday, which qualified her for the oral finals against 15 others the next day.
Her nerves calmed down as the competition started, because she was having a blast and the competitors were rooting for each other.
What happened in 1972 was now out of mind, but she knew she was in for much tougher words than when she competed as a teenager.
She was right.
But round after round, Matz spelled the words correctly and by the 11th round, the field was narrowed to just two: Matz and Tony Johnson, a Georgia psychologist and a past champion.
The two spelling heavyweights put on a show for the people in the audience, as they went letter for letter for 14 rounds.
Then, it happened.
Chymotrypsinogen – a substance secreted by the pancreas.
“I put in the wrong vowels near the end,” she said. “I think I said, ‘s-y-n’ instead of ‘s-i-n.’
Johnson went on to spell ytterbium correctly and claim the title.
Matz held second place – again.
No one sees the humor in the situation more than she.
“I just think that the irony is delicious,” Matz said, “Yet again, I have almost won a national spelling bee.”
Matz, who took home $1,000 in prize money, said she would consider competing again – not because she feels compelled to win.
Just because it was so much fun.