Spelling Bee Pronouncer a High-Stakes Job

Duke's Sam Miglarese passes the microphone after three years in the hot seat

Twenty-five rounds. More than 300 words. Sixty-one students from Durham and Orange counties.

After about four hours of providing definitions, languages of origin and alternative pronunciations, pronouncer Sam Miglarese stared up at fifth-grader Bettie Closs, who was hopping up and down on the stage in Page Auditorium.

"We have a winner!" announced Miglarese, director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership.

Bettie was named champion of the Duke-sponsored Scripps Regional Spelling Bee Saturday after correctly spelling, "impunity."

The crowning of the champion marked the end of Miglarese's three-year stint as pronouncer, a high-stress spelling bee role in which a simple mispronunciation or heavy-handed guidance can throw off the entire competition. Miglarese became pronouncer after Judith Ruderman, a visiting professor in the Duke English department and former vice provost who served in the role for two years. Duke's Office of Durham and Regional Affairs will soon start its search for a 2015 pronouncer.

"My favorite part is being an active participant," Miglarese said. "I love words. All my life, reading has been a very active part of my weekly routine and I would say that knowing, learning new words, experiencing the power of words I think sort of motivated me even more to accept the challenge that was offered."

He said his first spelling bee was most challenging, but over the years, his preparation methods have evolved. He receives the list of Scripps regional bee words well in advance, and without disturbing his cubicle mates, he goes through the list, sometimes using the Merriam-Webster dictionary website to figure out the best pronunciations.

"It was clear to me that these youngsters put in so much time and effort and their parents are so emotionally connected to their child that I didn't want to be the reason why a child misspelled a word," he said.

This year, Scripps sent him the championship list of words only 72 hours before the start of the bee.

On Saturday, parents filled the auditorium, tensing when their young competitors spelled words such as "infinitesimal" and "douane," a custom house in France. The 61 students seated on the stage were the top spellers at their schools. They were going head-to-head for the grand prize, an all-expenses-paid trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. this May.

At the start of the competition, Miglarese patiently provided more information to spellers calculating their next move at the microphone.

What's the language of origin of 'jovial'? "It's from the French, which formed it from a Latin word." What's the definition of 'crochet'? "Needlework consisting of the interlocking of looped stitches." What is an alternative pronunciation of 'praline'? "Sometimes pronounced, 'prah-line.'"

Empty seats began to appear after the first round - after some of the students misspelled, their faces reddened and others clenched their fists at their sides. Tissues were passed to eliminated spellers being consoled by their mothers.

Josie Barboriak, a 9-year-old representing Immaculata Catholic School in Durham, burst into tears after misspelling "ingenue." She had been close to representing the final eight.

Phail Wynn Jr., Duke's vice president of Durham and Regional Affairs, walked up to her and touched her shoulder, crouching down to eye level.

"There were some tricky words up there," Wynn said. "You did a great job, OK?"

Miglarese said the real pressure is leading students through a difficult word and allowing them to "finish with a sense of pride."

"I really identify with their facial expressions," he said.

As the competition reached round 16, Miglarese told the audience that he hoped he didn't run out of words. Bettie eventually took home the prize. She said representing Duke on a national level meant "E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g."