After successfully navigating past oodles of tricky words such as “mercerize,” “grobian” and “stabilimeter,” 42 schoolchildren remained in the running Thursday to be named champion of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. CNN Photo)


After appearing on “The Tonight Show,” I talked less and less about winning the National Spelling Bee. I would occasionally get ribbed for it at school (or asked to spell an off-color word or two), but generally, it was less of a bother to let it fade into the background. I barely told anybody about it in college. In fact, a schoolmate only found out after finding my name listed as a spelling bee champion in an old copy of the World Almanac.

When I watch the telecasts of the National Spelling Bee today, I’m impressed at the increasing level of competition that the kids bring to the bee each year. I won the over 25 years ago, but today, I’m not sure I could break out of the top 50.

One of these days, a kid will memorize every single word in Webster’s Third New International, and the judges may be forced to coin new words on the spot to declare a champion. Until then, I’m not only astounded by the quality of competition, but also uplifted by the spirit of fair play and mutual support that the spellers display to each other.

Thursday night one competitor will be crowned the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee victor and embark on a similar journey to the one I did 27 years ago. If I could impart any wisdom to the winner, it would be this: Life doesn’t begin or end with the spelling bee. It just gives you some wonderful tales to tell along the way.

Editor’s note: Jon Pennington won the 1986 National Spelling Bee. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two dogs.

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