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Buffalo’s spelling bee champ from 52 years ago delves into history of spelling

Marsha E. Ackermann, the 1963 winner of the Buffalo Evening News Spelling Bee, knew the computer spell-checker had not bested human spell-checkers when she kept spotting the word “aquatint” in student papers she was grading.

“Aquatint” is an etching technique used in printmaking. It also was the computer spell-checker’s first choice when correcting students who left the c out of “acquaint.”

Ackermann could appreciate the confusion.

After winning in Buffalo 52 years ago, she placed 25th in the 36th National Spelling Bee.

She was bounced from the competition on the word “dilatory.”

She confused it with “delay” and came up with “delatory.”

She said she doesn’t remember any of the words she spelled right, but “delatory” is aquatinted on her brain.

Overall, it was a defining experience for her and it led her to write “How Do You Spell Ruzevelt: A History of Spelling in America.”

The book, published last fall, makes for timely reading as spelling bee season warms up.

With the first round of cuts already made, the top middle school spellers in Western New York and around the country are now heading to their regional contests. Twenty students will compete Sunday in the 82nd annual Buffalo News Spelling Bee, with the winner advancing to Washington, D.C., for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May. The 20 students will put their spelling skills to the test at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Buffalo History Museum, Nottingham Terrace at Elmwood Avenue. Admission is free.

Ackermann, a Sweet Home graduate and formerly a Buffalo Courier Express staffer, said she discovered the history of spelling to be far more dramatic than she expected.

Today’s uproar over Common Core pales in comparison with the social and political furors over spelling reforms that erupted after the 13 American colonies decided to give up “colour” for “color,” among other things.

In the afterglow of the American Revolution, she wrote, an unhappy schoolteacher named Noah Webster published a children’s spelling book devoid of what he considered to be British peculiarities. At the time, Webster proclaimed that, with his revisions, “All the trouble of learning to spell will be saved.”

“Could he possibly have been more wrong?” Ackermann asked.

“He was a very, very peculiar man,” Ackermann said in an interview from her Michigan home. “For him, everything had to be perfect. But he himself tried to change so many things about American diction because he didn’t like it. He was a real radical, but he pretended not to be because he needed money.”

One man Webster turned to for support was Benjamin Franklin. Over the years, Horace Mann got into the spelling reform act, as did the Beecher family, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Competing dictionaries duked it out, with families like the Merriams collecting political support from U.S. presidents James Polk and Zachary Taylor. Louisa May Alcott’s educator father Bronson Alcott jumped into the A-B-C fray with a more transcendental approach to words, but that free-form effort was overwhelmed by the rote memorization of the McGuffey Reader by the late 1800s.

Ackermann explored the role that spelling and literacy played in the South before and after the Civil War, when black Americans were rarely allowed to attend school. She described the combination of pride and protest that erupted in 1908 when Marie C. Bolden, a black student from Cleveland, won a spelling contest sponsored by the National Education Association. She was, Ackermann wrote, “the very first winner of an American national Spelling Bee.”

The book’s title comes from another speller of that same period.

President Theodore Roosevelt, “an accomplished author but indifferent speller,” briefly ordered federal agencies to use “reformed” spelling – like “thru” for through, “prest” for pressed, “laf” instead of laugh, and so on. He gave up the effort under a barrage of press and public ridicule.

One hundred years later, spelling is under assault from other, less official quarters, as casual communicators condense their words to fit the space of texts and Tweets.

But Ackermann believes it is still important to at least know how to get it right when necessary.

“People say that spelling doesn’t matter anymore, that we have all these other ways to communicate,” she said. “But then they get angry if they see people spelling things wrong.

“Could we come up with a better way to write, something more streamlined?” Ackermann asked. “Maybe, but nobody is going to be happy with it, so you might as well stick with what you have.”