Spelling champ knew magic word The Devon Prep wizard qualified for the national competition in Washington.

Posted: May 09, 2004

DEVON — If it weren't for one of his computer games, Michael Baldassari might not be Chester County's spelling champion.

"They gave me the word mage, and I just happened to remember it from a computer game I played. It means 'wizard,' " said the 13-year-old, a seventh grader at Devon Preparatory School.

At the end of this month, Baldassari will head from his home in Worcester, Montgomery County, to Washington to compete in the 77th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. He will face more than 200 other spelling champions from across the country.

Kathryn Shaheen, an English teacher at Devon Prep, said that each autumn she receives a packet from the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which runs the countywide bee for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. One student from each public and private school in the county may attend, and Baldassari won Devon Prep's competition.

He received a booklet of words to study, although Shaheen said that, for the competition, "any word is fair game."

"At first his mother and I tried to downplay the whole thing; you know, 'Just go and see what happens, just go out and have fun,' " Shaheen said.

On March 15, Baldassari, his mother and Shaheen attended the county spelling bee at the Intermediate Unit's office in Downingtown.

Baldassari said he was nervous at some points during the competition. "You're on a stage looking out at all these people," he said with a grimace.

The 44 students went through a few preliminary rounds and were winnowed down to 10 for the finals.

Besides mage, another tricky word Baldassari spelled correctly was demography.

In the final round, each student was asked to spell one word. If he or she got it wrong, the next contestant got a chance at a different word. If the second student got it right, the first contestant was eliminated.

At the end, four students and Baldassari were left. The first four misspelled their words, and then it was Baldassari's turn. He was asked to spell adrenal.

"I had never heard of it," he said. "I asked for a definition, but it didn't help me."

But he spelled it correctly, anyway - to his surprise: "I thought it was too easy" - and all of a sudden, the competition was over and he had won.

"It just happened so fast, we were taken aback," Shaheen said. "His mother and I just looked at each other."

As a prize, Baldassari received "a really big dictionary," as well as another list of words to study. He said his uncle and aunt, who are his neighbors, were quizzing him in preparation for the national contest.

"They just go down the list of words," he said. "They're really getting into it."

He said his classmates at Devon Prep had been supportive.

Baldassari said he was looking forward to attending the national competition, scheduled for June 1 to 3, along with his parents and his 10-year-old sister. The contestants also will get to tour Washington's attractions, can visit Baltimore and Annapolis, and will have a pizza party thrown in their honor.

Baldassari is in his second year at Devon Prep, and he says his favorite classes are gym and English. He also is studying Latin. "In the beginning," he said, "you had to study a lot, but it's a little easier now."

He said he was not sure why he was such a good speller, although he said he had always enjoyed reading. He is now reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Shaheen described him as "very bright, very creative. He's a strong reader and a very, very good writer."

Send Education news to suburban staff writer Wendy Walker, The Inquirer, 120 N. High St., West Chester, Pa. 19380; e-mail it to PAschools@phillynews.com; or fax to 610-701-7630. Contact Wendy Walker at 610-701-7651 or wwalker@phillynews.com.

They Were No. 1

National Spelling Bee winners from Pennsylvania, and their winning words:

Year Student, hometown Word

1987 Stephanie Petit, Pittsburgh staphylococci

1986 Jon Pennington, Harrisburg odontalgia

1977 John Paola, Pittsburgh cambist

1971 Jonathan Knisely, Philadelphia shalloon

1956 Melody Sachko, Pittsburgh condominium

1954 William Cashore, Norristown transept

Source: www.spellingbee.com, site of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

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