Published: November 25, 2012
Words are powerful.
Words can build character, slur you to a slouch, bring tears down, shake both legs in gut-combustion laughter, take down tyrants, and make national leaders.
America’s greatness started from founders while crafting the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
The words they used guaranteeing individual freedoms, including freedom of religion and freedom of the press, have had the divine staying power to create the most powerful and blessed nation the world.
Some of America’s most powerful spoken words have come from pulpits, such as “a dancing foot cannot be attached to a praying knee.” That’s awesome verbiage straight out of an ancient foot-washing sermon in the remote mountains of North Carolina.
“I have a dream,” rings eternal from the lips of the late Martin Luther King Jr.
I owe a writing career to boyhood farm neighbor A.J. Neel, a self-taught man who introduced me to library books with this prophetic instruction: “Words can take you around the world, Danny Boy.”
I partially learned to read before formal school days from Bible picture books and looking at girly pictures in Sears-Roebuck catalogues.
How else could I explain to my first grade teacher, Billie Margaret Greer, how I knew to spell “brassiere.” Ahem.
Americanized English can be tricky, particularly in spoken vernacular, such as “their” and “there,” not to mention “stares” and “stairs.”
Editors of my stories down through the decades have approved both spellings of “loathe” and “loath” – a word that nearly took me out of the recent Celebrity Spelling Bee, a fundraiser for Rutherford County’s successful Read To Succeed nonprofit organization that promotes literacy.
Drama built in the packed Patterson Park Community Center as I pondered, and finally, tacked an “e” on “loathe” to barely stay in the competition ahead of that dastardly disqualifying bell.
It was great fun but pressure-packed, too.
For I was up against some of the smartest people my community has to offer, such as Smyrna veterinarian Dr. LeAnne Duffey.
For the record, “veterinarian” is one of the most misspelled words in newspapering. Smyrna seems to be mispronounced more than misspelled.
Fans of literacy cheered with laughter when veterinarian Duffey was asked to spell “fleas.”
Spelling bee particpants, including myself, all moaned in shared pain when a medical man, Joey Peay, chief executive officer of the Murfreesboro Medical Clinic, failed to spell “diagnosis” straight out of the chute.
When I successfully spelled “sidewalk” to pass the second round of competition, I gave a shout out to WGNS Radio talk show personality Truman Jones, who was in the audience – I had heard him wagering with Hooper Penuel before the competition that “Whittle won’t make it past the second round.”
Contestant Dr. Mary Moss impressed the audience and competitors when she successfully spelled “speculum,” while contestant Mitchell Mote nailed the spelling of “manure” with obvious familiarity.
My personal deodorant had a chemical meltdown when a simple six-letter word, “fedora,” nearly proved my undoing in the fifth round.
That’s when I looked at my pretty cheerleading wife, Patricia, and bragged “I’m still up here” in front of the more than 300 literacy supporters out in the audience.
Finally, it was between me and contestant Don Clayton in the spell-off round.
Thirteen very smart people had failed words ranging from “exaggerate” to “philosophize” to narrow it down to just us.
When Clayton spelled “surrealist” correctly, I knew he was a word man. He had also spelled “feign” and did not hesitate when spelling “tentativeness.”
In the playoff round, I handled “hospice” and “epilepsy,” but it was a word beginning with “h” that took me under: “Dan Whittle, your word is ‘mezzanine,’” instructed emcee Bart Walker.
I began slowly, trying to visualize the word. Worried, I blurted out with no confidence: “M-E-Z-A-N-I-N-E.”
That’s when the disqualifying bell went ding, as in wrong.
Nothing, but “cholera” stood between Clayton and the 2012 travelling trophy, held since 2011 Kristen Demos.
Being a competitor after I missed on my word, I attempted to put a “Whittle hex” on Clayton, but to my dismay: he spelled “C-H-O-L-E-R-A” loud and clear.
Being an executive with the Ingram Books Group, of La Vergne, Clayton proved himself a worthy word man.
Hats off to the volunteer folks who donate their talents, time and finances to help others learning to read so that they can succeed.