Donna Mack
The first annual Salmon Bay Spelling Throwdown offered drinks, live music and obscure Spanish words to raise money for Salmon Bay Elementary School. CLICK IMAGE FOR MORE PHOTOS.

At Large in Ballard: Still abuzz

What do you get when you cross-pollinate a former church, two rock bands, women dressed as bumblebees, a drink called The Stinger and a national spelling champion?

Correct. The first-ever Salmon Bay Spelling Throwdown is C-O-R-R-E-C-T.

A woman wearing black-and-white stripes and bobbing antennae greeted me at the door.

“I’m Robin,” she said. “And, this is my bee.”

Although she was rightly referring to her role as lead organizer, I later realized she was also carrying the handmade bee ultimately awarded to the second-place winner of the spelling competition.

Obvious as a woman dressed like a bumblebee, Robin Lofstrom was everywhere throughout the evening, collecting money at the door, showing off the surroundings of the Big House and rocking the rafters of the former church as vocalist with parent band The Zoinks.

One could make a case that raising funds for the school by holding an adult spelling bee models good learning habits for children, but anyone witnessing parents as rockers and spellers pumping the keg between rounds might think twice. This was an adult bee.

The venue also made a perfect hive: Ron and Dave’s Big House in Ballard on 20th Avenue Northwest.

Some people notice the rocks in front, while others notice the tricycles perched on the rocks, the overhang and even the telephone pole.

A private residence that is available for some rentals, the Big House is also an art installation inside and out: piles of bowling balls, stacks of globes, floor to ceiling shelves of beads and what looked suspiciously like a trapeze swing mounted in the very middle of the main room.

Into this eclectic party mix, add Eastside resident Randy Hilfman who placed second in the National Adult Spelling Bee in Cheyenne a few years ago and was “a rather hot commodity for awhile.”

Clearly versed in the rigid rules of national competition, Hilfman was obligingly prepared to hold court as the spelling master for a throwdown consisting of a qualifying written round and a live bee for the top 15 contestants.

The entrance fee was $10 for those who wanted to enter the spelling bee.

About 50 people clutched short, eraser-less pencils and wrote down their best guess spelling of 25 words announced and defined by Hilfman.

Some words were relatively easy, like limousine or isosceles. But, it may be a clue that most of the audience didn’t know the meaning, much less spelling, of the words jipijapa or guimpe.

While volunteers scored the written test, The Zoinks did a set, pizza arrived and there was a flurry at the bar in advance of learning which spellers would advance.

Announced in reverse order (from seven errors to a tie at four), the live bee participants were be-ribboned with their rank and stepped onstage to receive their word.

But, misspelling a word didn’t necessarily spell E-N-D. Unlike the nationals, these adults could “buy” their way back into competition for $10. After all, the event was a fundraiser.

In the first round, only two people missed words (like sarsaparilla and tetrazzini).

At the end of the second round, only six people had not yet missed a word.

At the end of the third round, only one contestant, Bill Kennedy, had not misspelled a single word.

Along with others, he had survived words like onomatopoeia and derailleur, while others had fallen on bouzouki and desiccated.

It was time for the championship round in which Kennedy faced off against the number 13 competitor, Donna Mack, who had continued successfully after buying her way back in.

Top place was at stake, along with $50 and Big House glory.

Mack’s word was from the French, a traditional dance (also French for Scottish girl). E-C-O-S-S-A-I-S-E? Correct.

Kennedy’s word was from obscure Spanish, now French for rubber. C-H-A-O-U-T-C-H-O-U-C? “I’m sorry,” Hilfman said. “That is not correct. It is C-A-O-U-T-C-H-O-U-C.”

So in a sudden reversal of fortune, the 13th-ranked speller won the bee and promptly donated her $50 winnings back to the school.

Her reaction: “I lucked out.”

As The Buckets prepared to take the stage, Hilfman explained that with more time, the increase in degree of difficulty would be more gradual. But between the second and third round, he had to jump several levels because the hour was growing late.

Instead of repairing to the bar to nurse their stingers, the losing spellers examined the written tests to learn from their misspelled words.

Clearly even party bees have a competitive and yet generous side, as parents and community members proved they can successfully rock and spell, something Robin Lofstrom already knew.

To further prove her point, the event was a success, raising $1,600 for the school. Days later, she was still abuzz with the event’s overall success.

As for me, I’m just happy I was speller number nine, and I didn’t go down until the third round.

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Donna Mack - Champion Speller

All I can say is that when Donna was 5 years old, she could spell "Mendenhall Inn", much to the chagrin of her older sister. And, when our mother asked Donna to go get the book Mom was reading, Donna said "You mean 'The Source' by James A. Michener?"

In other words, luck had nothing to do with her win at the spelling bee!