In a spelling bee, no one wants to come first.
But that’s exactly where Robert Muhar ended up in 1975 when he represented the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, at the 48th Annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. . At the time, he was 12 years old. alumnus of eighth grade at Webb Junior High in Tampa.
Muhar still lives in St. Petersburg, where he works as a pharmacist at St. Anthony’s Hospital. Looking back, he said participating in the national contest was a great experience that taught him more than just spelling.
This year, the Tampa Bay area is represented in the Scripps National Spelling Bee by Bruhat Soma, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Turner Bartels K-8 School in Tampa.
The 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee is being held this week at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. There will be 234 competitors. Actor LeVar Burton is hosting the national semi-finals and finals, which will be televised live on ION and Bounce on June 1-2.
Muhar goes to Washington
To make it to the National Spelling Bee, Muhar had to win a series of preliminary spelling tests, starting with his eighth-grade class competition and the school-wide competition at Webb Junior High (now Webb Middle School) in Tampa. As one of the Hillsborough County Bee’s top spellers, he qualified for the Suncoast Spelling Bee in St. Petersburg, where he competed with the top spellers from each of the region’s six counties. By correctly spelling his last word, “flexible”, he won the victory and earned himself a trip to the national competition.
“I had moved to Florida when I was only 3, so the trip to Washington, DC, was my first real out-of-state travel memory,” he said. “It was also the first plane trip I can remember. I remember being almost as excited about the airplane flight as I was about the bee itself. I had always been fascinated by heights as a young child, so being able to fly was a dream come true.
The National Spelling Bee was smaller and simpler in 1975 than it is today. The competition, held at the stately old Mayflower Hotel in downtown DC, attracted 79 contestants. They participated in a traditional oral spelling bee that spanned two days, interspersed with a week of visits and parties for the spellers and their families.
Muhar remembers walking the grounds of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia. He and the other Spellers cruised the Potomac, toured Capitol Hill and enjoyed a VIP tour of the White House where then-First Lady Betty Ford greeted them from a balcony overlooking the Rose Garden.
“Being able to go to the top of the Washington Monument and look down was great for me because I like heights and tall buildings,” he said. “I liked studying American history, so the trip to Mount Vernon was interesting. I also remember walking through the halls of our hotel and seeing the names of famous people who had stayed there.
Spells also met a celebrity – actor Will Geer, who played Grandpa Walton on the popular 1970s TV show “The Waltons.” There to film a National Spelling Bee special, Geer accompanied the Spellers on some of the excursions, performed for them and attended the bee.
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Let the spelling begin
As the No. 1 Speller, Muhar sat in the front row of the Spellers on stage in the hotel’s massive ballroom. He was the first to approach the microphone to spell in front of the room filled with parents, teachers, journalists and photographers.
Muhar survived the first four rounds, but then got the word “lebensraum”.
“It’s a German word that literally means ‘living room,'” he said. “It was ironic that I was missing a German word, since I was actually born in Germany. I don’t speak German, but my mother does. She had accompanied me to Washington and had intended to give me advice on the spelling of German words, but she did not bother. She was a little mad at herself afterwards.
He placed 61st and won $50.
“I was a bit disappointed because it was the first spelling bee I lost,” Muhar said. “I got over it quickly and was able to enjoy the rest of the week.”
The winner of the 1975 National Spelling Bee was Hugh Tosteson Garcia from Puerto Rico. He was the first winner outside of the United States 50. His prizes included $1,000, a trophy cup, a plaque, and a ruby-set medal.
Looking back, Muhar said that not winning the National Spelling Bee taught him a valuable lesson: “I think that experience helped me deal better with future disappointments, like scoring below expectations. during a test or a course.”
Muhar said his colleagues knew he was a good speller and sometimes asked him to proofread documents for them. But most of them don’t know that he is a former spelling champion.
“I’ve told some of the people I’ve known about it over the years, but most people I know now don’t know about it.”
Muhar said he occasionally watches the National Spelling Bee on television, and while he still considers himself a good speller, he thinks today’s National Spelling Bee is much more difficult than the one he was at. participated 47 years ago.
“I probably wouldn’t be able to compete with today’s top spellers,” he said.
Muhar is a graduate of Hillsborough Community College, Tampa College, University of South Florida, and the University of Florida. He has been a hospital pharmacist for over 30 years, primarily at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
He and his wife Nancy, a nurse, have four children. When not working, Muhar and his family enjoy movies, concerts, sports and cruises.
Freelance writer Amy Blakely is a retired journalist and academic public relations professional who lives in Maryville, Tennessee. She, too, competed in the 1975 National Spelling Bee and strives to reconnect with her fellow contestants and tell their stories. To date, she has interviewed 46 of the 79 1975 candidates.