Nation's first spelling bee champion dies at 97

Mar 23 2011 - 12:46pm

WASHINGTON -- Most people hope for a life that's a bed of roses. But for Frank Neuhauser, the nation's first champion speller who died March 11 at age 97, the roses turned out to be gladiolus -- g-l-a-d-i-o-l-u-s.

The correct spelling of that word, meaning a flowering plant of the iris family, catapulted the 11-year-old Neuhauser to victory in what is recognized as the first national spelling bee in 1925.

That competition was sponsored by The Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville, Ky., which coincidentally was young Neuhauser's hometown. The E.W. Scripps Co. now hosts what has come to be titled the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This year's contest, the 84th annual, takes place June 1 and 2.

The title earned Neuhauser $500 in gold coins -- such coins weren't removed from circulation until Executive Order 6102 in 1933 -- a bicycle and an audience with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.

Neuhauser, who suffered from myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disorder, and died at his home in Silver Spring, Md., was one of nine spellers from among more than 2 million prospective entrants selected to travel to Washington, D.C., for the competition. A Catholic grade school student, the son of a stonemason, Neuhauser was honored with a ticker tape parade upon his return to Kentucky.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has evolved dramatically since Neuhauser's time, according to Paige Kimble, the Bee's director. The words are more difficult and the finals are broadcast live on ABC-TV.

"We will welcome 274 or 275 spellers to this year's Bee -- it's a big difference," Kimble said. "But one thing I've learned about the Bee after being involved in it for almost 30 years now is that kids are kids. They still fidget and they are all growing up in many respects the same."

Neuhauser went on to an illustrious career in the law. A 1934 graduate of the University of Louisville with a degree in electrical engineering, Neuhauser found work at General Electric, which operated a large plant in his hometown. He left to attend law school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., earning a degree in 1940.

War broke out little more than a year later, leading to a stint in the U.S. Navy where he served as a lieutenant commander. Returning stateside, he once again hooked on with GE, this time as a patent lawyer, eventually locating in the Washington area in the 1950s. He finally left the company at age 65 and joined a DC law firm.

Neuhauser proved as successful with his chosen profession as he was in spelling. He served as president of what now is known as the American Intellectual Property Law Association and was chairman of the National Council of Patent Law Associations.

"I think he was a man who was proud of his achievements in life, including winning the national Spelling Bee," Kimble said.

Neuhauser returned to the Bee several times over the past few years, drawing attention each time as something of a pioneer.

"We invited him to the Bee on several occasions and when he was able to attend the kids adored him and always sought his autograph," Kimble said. "It was lovely to watch the interaction between the kids and this man in his nineties. He had tremendous spirit."

Neuhauser is survived by his wife of 66 years, Mary Virginia Clark Neuhauser, of Silver Spring, MD, and four children.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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