Friday, May 25, 2007

In the Oregonian!

Katherine's with a K, but spelling's with a bee

Thursday, May 24, 2007
By Spencer Heinz The Oregonian

The judge rises. She carries a plastic pitcher of words, and she rapidly gets to the point.
"Hello, I'm Katherine with a K," she tells the crowd, "and welcome to the Portland Spelling Bee."
She wears half-frame glasses and stands before a microphone in the Mississippi Pizza Pub. Sixteen contestants on folding chairs, with numbered cards on their chests, spell words she pulls from the pitcher.

She starts with easier ones, "writhed" and "velveteen" and the like, then enunciates her way through harder terrain from, say, "opsimath" to "saxifrage."

Her name is Katherine Woods-Eliot. She says she employs no word she cannot pronounce. A business card describes her as a "Bon Vivant, Dilettante," and what follows is the arc of a woman who went from simply loving words to an action figure with few peers -- at least in local pizza pubs.

Born in 1973 in Tacoma and raised and schooled near Seattle, she recalls spending recess with a friend writing and doing plays. By high school's freshman year, she had immersed herself in the study of gerunds, subjunctives and related innards of grammar.

"Most kids found it really boring and punishing," she says, "but I thought it was fascinating to find out how all those cogs work."

While in and out of college, she had a daughter and a son, finished a history degree at Reed, then spent a couple of years studying accounting at Portland State before hiring on as a research associate for a local financial services firm.

Yet something was missing, as they say, and then she saw the ad. This was last December. A North Portland pizza pub would interview applicants to emcee a weekly spelling bee.

First exhilarated and then panicked, she looked inside herself. She had debated in high school but hadn't given a speech for a long time. Then again, she had been hoping to build her public speaking skills, so she focused on her strength: The pub wanted applicants to show up with lots of ideas, and she had never been short on those.

Like a librarian

She showed up in a skirt and a man's vest hoping to project a certain image: "I guess that would be of a librarian," she says, "with a sense of humor. Knowledgeable but fun."

Standing ready to interview applicants was Philip Stanton, co-owner with wife Stephanie of the Mississippi Pizza Pub and a man who adds: "I'm a horrible, horrible speller." He admires those who are good. He had talked with four applicants, each of them fine, then in walked Katherine with a K.

He says from the moment he saw her -- poised and professional yet graced by a face that gently reddened -- he figured she could be the one.

"She's an attractive woman, and there was something librarian-ish about her," Stanton recalls. "And the combination for this particular venue was perfect."

A couple of days later, he asked her whether she wanted the job.

"Yes! More than anything!" K says she replied, and she called together a focus group to test ways to run the thing. Ideas went from how to configure contestants' chairs to how to respect the nature of Monday nights so as not to keep workaday patrons up too late. They also considered whether to ask contestants to reveal their favorite letter and why.

"We dispensed with that," she says. "We decided to just spell."

The pub displayed a slogan, "Finally, a way to prove you really are smarter than everyone else!" The next Monday, Jan. 8, she finished another financial-business workday, clipped out words on slips of paper and headed to the pub on North Mississippi. She was too anxious to eat.
Rules from the stage

The owner announced her presence, and she arose to announce the rules: The judge will select and pronounce a random word from the pitcher. The contestant shall repeat it, spell it and say it again.

As some might say, the audience was spellbound, and things wrapped up to the sound of cheers.
"There was a huge sense of relief," she says. "And then there was -- 'Wow, that was really fun!' Public speaking is a thing that a lot of people fear more than death. I thought, 'Am I crazy to like this? I mean, am I wrong?' "

She decided she was right, and each Monday since has likewise spritzed the pub with bits of drama and joy. Moments have ranged from the unveiling of grand trains of syllables (two of her favorites have been "pandowdy" and "Panglossian," a glissando that sounds so great that it barely matters what it means), to the tension of contestants making saves on words they have no normal right to know. With limited time and maybe a beer, they dig through linguistic roots -- just as contestant No. 7 did the other night as one of the final survivors.

K ran him through words from "rued" to "usufructuary" -- and eventually, to "viga."
Two syllables.

He asks her to say it again.


From the Spanish. Refers to a type of heavy ceiling rafter.

No. 7 takes a moment to think it through. He is Sam Dahan, 52, a local software engineer who was born in Morocco. His native language is French. He ended up in this -- his first spelling bee, he later says, in any language -- simply as the fortunate friend of some parents and kids in the crowd.

"Viga," he replies. "V-I-G-A. Viga."

That is correct, the judge proclaims, and the crowd tilts into applause.

He has ridden from out of nowhere to big news within these walls.

She presents him with a championship shirt.

"I called my cousin," he exclaims a few days later. "And my wife called the whole family."

As for K, who had launched herself from the everyday to the rarefied air of pub-stage usufructuary (from the Latin), she reflects on what she seeks from this higher plane of hope.

"To leave the audience happy," she says, "after a moment of intellectual stimulation."

Spencer Heinz: 503-221-8072;
©2007 The Oregonian

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