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Orland Park spelling bee to mark 34th year

Spellers compete  annual OrlPark spelling bee Sunday afternoOctober 16 2011. The event took place Presbyterian Church OrlPark OrlPark Illinois.

Spellers compete at the annual Orland Park spelling bee Sunday afternoon October 16, 2011. The event took place at the Presbyterian Church of Orland Park in Orland Park, Illinois. | Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media

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To register for the 34th Orland Open Spelling Bee, call (708) 460-0948, (708) 429-7764 or (708) 448-8142.

The bee is open to spellers as young as 8 years old, there is no charge to compete and participants don’t have to live in Orland Park. Turnout has averaged more than 100 spellers each year for the past 20 years, according to Bill Smith, who organized the first bee in 1979.

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:02AM



As a girl growing up in Ireland, Kathleen Foley took her words seriously.

When she came across a word she never had seen before, she would scrutinize it and commit it to memory.

“I think I have a photographic memory,” the Oak Lawn woman said. “I can visualize a word and spell it.”

Foley’s spelling prowess earned her eight titles as grand champion of the Orland Open Spelling Bee, the most in the bee’s 33-year history, and she’s the oldest person to win the competition, which accepts spellers as young as 8 years old.

The 34th installment of the bee will take place Oct. 21 at The Presbyterian Church in Orland Park, 13401 S. Wolf Road, but competitors don’t have to live in Orland Park to take part. Trophies and ribbons are awarded to top spellers in various age categories, and an average of 100 contestants participate.

Bill Smith, a retired school superintendent who organized the first bee in 1979, said it’s not uncommon for adult spellers to have their children and grandchildren also competing. One year, Foley took the top prize while her daughter finished second.

The Orland Township resident said it’s not always the best speller in the room who walks away with the big trophy. Sitting down and writing out a word you’re given is one thing, but standing up in front of a crowd can unnerve the most competent speller, he said.

“Even a fairly simple word can make someone stumble,” he said.

Foley, it would appear, is the exception to that rule.

“I love spelling, but I am not good in front of a crowd,” the retired schoolteacher said.

Smith said the contest is modeled after an all-town spelling bee in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little Town on the Prairie” — a book Smith picked up years ago after his three daughters had read it.

“I have twice shaken hands with her,” Smith, 83, said of Wilder. “She did not write those ‘Little House’ books until she was in her 60s.”

Smith said he was “a spelling bee nut” during his time as superintendent of Alsip, Hazelgreen and Oak Lawn School District 126.

“When I retired in 1990, spelling bees had ceased to be the norm in schools,” he said.

In compiling the list of words used in the contest — last year there were 520 — Smith said he stays away from those 12-syllable head-scratchers.

“That’s not a spelling test, that’s a vocabulary test,” he said.

‘Queen of the bees’

Foley, who taught for 16 years at St. Barnabas School in Chicago’s Beverly community, said she first came across an article advertising the Orland bee several years ago, after she’d retired from teaching.

“I thought that now that I’m retired I had time to participate in all these types of things,” she said.

The first time she competed she snagged second place.

“That gave me the know-how of handling it,” Foley said.

She finished in first place in 1992 and repeated the following year, and also had back-to-back wins in 1996 and 1997, and in 1999 and 2000. She also came out on top in 2003 and 2005, when, at the age of 77, she became the oldest person ever to win the contest.

Some of Foley’s children and grandchildren have participated in the bee, and one year she and her daughter were the last two contestants standing. Foley said she briefly considered taking a dive to let her daughter claim the top prize.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I should let her win,’ but it was against my religion to let anyone beat me at spelling,” she said.

One other person has won the bee three times, but that’s as close as any participant has come to matching Foley’s record. Smith said it garnered her the respectful nickname “queen of the bees.”

“My children learned to be better spellers because I was so keen on it,” Foley said.



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