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David Nelson, left, shakes hands and receives a pencil from then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson as Nelson visited the nationís capital to take part in the National Spelling Bee in 1959.

Nelson recalls trip to capital for national bee

For the Avalanche-Journal

The Scripps National Spelling Bee always grabs David Nelson’s attention - even now that it’s been almost 50 years since he was part of the unique event.

“I think it gave me a lot of confidence,” Nelson said, “certainly from the spelling part of it. It was something that always helped me with term papers or anything else I had to write. I didn’t have to look things up.”

As a 14-year-old from Matthews Junior High, Nelson correctly spelled “chameleon” and “chancel” to capture first place in the seventh-annual Avalanche-Journal Spelling Bee and earned a trip to Washington, D.C., where the national competition is held each year.

“That was one of the most exciting experiences of my lifetime,” he said. “It was the first time I had ever been to Washington and the chance to meet people like Lyndon Johnson, George Mahon and Ralph Yarbrough was quite an experience.”

According to the Scripps National Spelling Bee Web site, the Louisville Courier-Journal began the event with nine contestants in 1925. Scripps began sponsoring the bee in 1941. The event has grown significantly since Nelson made the trip, and this year’s bee ended Friday with the national champion crowned in prime time on television.

The weeklong trip to Washington remains a memory maker for contestants, and that was no different for Nelson, who finished 12th in the 1959 national bee.

“We stayed at the Mayflower Hotel, where it was held for a number of years,” said Nelson, who is now a tax attorney in Houston.

“I remember that while I was there, my parents saw John Wayne, who was staying there at that time. When I go back to Washington on business trips, I have stayed at the Mayflower many times, and it has not changed much. That room where they held the national spelling bee looks very similar to what it did in 1959.”

Nelson was diligent in claiming his regional victory. He finished third in the bee in 1957 and second in 1958 before prevailing. He was accompanied to Washington by former longtime A-J reporter and columnist Kenneth May, who reported on bee week for the paper.

The trip included opportunities to meet some of Texas’ greatest politicians, and Nelson said that experience left a lasting impression.

“I remember having Senate bean soup with George Mahon in the Capitol building,” he said of dining with the former longtime Lubbock senator. “I still have the menu that he autographed for me.”

The chance to meet Johnson sparked what would become a lifelong interest. Johnson was Senate majority leader at the time, but he was destined to become president.

“He was larger than life,” Nelson recalled. “It was quite an experience for a 14-year-old to meet him. He gave me a pencil that looked like a ballpoint pen, and in the top of it is a photograph of him. I still have it.

“I did some consulting work for the LBJ Foundation in Austin last year, and I took that photograph with me when I met with their board of directors after I was finished with the project. I passed that pen around. His daughter was there, and she was interested in seeing it.”

Nelson’s competitive spelling experience in Washington ended in the 11th round when he encountered the word “geophagy,” which he spelled with an “f” instead of a “ph,” according to May’s article that appeared on the front page of the Evening Journal.

“I’m not depressed,” he told May for that story. “I had never heard that word. I didn’t know Greek was like that.”

By the way, “geophagy” is defined as the practice of eating earthy substances, especially clay.

Nelson’s top-12 performance was among the best by a Lubbock area speller until 1966, when Sonya Gilliam placed third, according to an A-J article. Then in June 1972, Robin Kral, a 14-year-old from Lamesa Middle School, won the national bee. He remains the only Lubbock area representative to claim the top prize. He correctly spelled “garnett” and “macerate.”

“It seemed totally unreal,” he told the A-J in an article published in 2001. “I almost passed out from hyperventilating, actually. It made me feel like I could do something significant and succeed.”

Which is the same feeling Nelson had. He finished Lubbock High in 1963, Texas Tech in 1967, SMU law school in 1970 and the U.S. Marine Corps in 1973, when he joined Ernst and Whinney as a CPA and attorney. He became a partner in the firm in 1981.

“This sounds crazy, but when I see words or hear words, I think about how to spell them, even now, all these years later,” Nelson said. “If I hear a word I haven’t heard before, I think about how it ought to be spelled. No doubt, spelling helps your reading skill. It’s a good thing to do, whether you win or not.”

The A-J continues to be involved in the bee as a sponsor, and Nelson is hopeful he can attend the 2009 regional spelling bee on the 50th anniversary of his victory.

“I hope to come back next year,” he said. “I think it would be fun to come back. When I lived in Lubbock, I used to go over there and watch the spelling bee most years. It used to be at O.L. Slaton. I think it would be fun to go back over to Slaton and look at the auditorium.”


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SPECIAL SECTIONS: 1909-1933 / 1934-1958 / 1959-1983 / 1984-PRESENT | PRINT VERSION