It was during his collegiate days that Shannon Sullivan was first stung by the spelling bee.
After returning from a night out with friends, he’d flick on the television, surf over to TSN and become delighted at the prospect of watching the sports network’s late night coverage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States.
“It does such a great job of promoting a love of reading, a love of writing, interest in languages and linguistics,” says Sullivan, a faculty member with Memorial University’s department of mathematics and statistics.
“There's a lot of stuff that gets encouraged by a spelling bee and I thought for a long time, boy, it's too bad we don't have anything like that.”
But we already did and, not long after, he learned about The Telegram’s involvement in the first CanWest (now Postmedia) Canspell regional spelling bee in 2006 and tossed his hat in the ring to assist at the next year’s event.
He started out as a judge in 2007, then moved into the head judge role for a number of years and since 2013 — when the event’s affiliation with Canspell ended and a new one with Scripps began — Sullivan has served as the pronouncer.
It’s a role he’ll assume again for the 7th annual Telegram Spelling Bee at the Holy Heart Theatre this Saturday starting at 2 p.m.
Up for grabs for the champion is a $2,000 top prize and a berth in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., held annually in May.
The event is open to the public, free of charge, though The Telegram is encouraging spectators to bring a non-perishable food donation for local food banks.
If you’re not able to attend, the event will be live streamed on The Telegram’s Facebook page.
Over the years, what’s stood out for Sullivan is how the competition has developed a spelling bee culture across the island, with more and more schools competing each year. This year’s competition, for instance, features 85 Grades 4-8 students from 43 different schools.
“It's clear that there are teachers and there are people in those school communities who are really interested in fostering success in the spelling bee,” says Sullivan.
As more schools have embraced the bee, the calibre of the spellers has also improved.
“We've got some people who are just good spellers,” he explains. “They understand how the part of speech matters, how the language of origin matters, how to use the sentence to help give them an idea of how a word is spelled.
“To see that development, that's really rewarding.”
Excluding the spellers themselves, Sullivan, as the keeper of words and information about those words, might just be the most important person there. In addition to fielding the standard queries from students — “What’s the language of origin?” or, “Can you use it in a sentence?” — he says there’s also a spirit of helpfulness at the core of his duties.
“Not prompt them, but hopefully make them feel a little more at ease with the process and make sure they are achieving their potential as best I can.”
Having seen over 550 students hit the stage, he’s uniquely qualified to offer advice to would-be spelling champs.
It’s important, he says, to relax, take your time and make use of all the information made available.
“Even if you do think you know the word right off the bat, it's never a bad thing to ask a couple of questions just to make sure that the word you've got in your head is the word that you're actually being asked to spell.”
But first and foremost, Sullivan urges the spellers to enjoy the moment.
“Every kid who's competing at the spelling bee is already a winner,” he says. “They've already won or placed in the Top 2 of their school-level spelling bee that qualified them to come here.
“They are all terrific spellers and they should go in with confidence knowing that they've done a wonderful thing just to get where they are.”
Sullivan is uniquely qualified to proffer such advice.
Back in 2000, when he was a 20-something graduate student at MUN, he was one of 12 people to compete on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Canadian Edition.”
“It was a great experience. I went down not knowing what the other contestants were going to be like, who was I going to be competing against? These could have been absolute trivia geniuses,” says Sullivan, who made it to the hot seat across from host Pamela Wallin, but failed to come up with the right answer to a question about the main ingredient in Nova Scotia fare Digby Chicken. (The answer was cured herring, not cured lobster.)
“As far as I was concerned, just getting to go, getting that trip to NYC, going to the studios, and participating ... that was the reward. So, getting into the hot seat and getting to compete and win just $1,000, that was the icing on the cake.”
Telegram Spelling Bee fast F-A-C-T-S
• The 2018 event saw spellers attempt 269 words over 14 rounds.
• The 2019 event marks the first time since 2013 that there are no past champions competing.
• As of 2019, 584 different spellers have qualified for a Telegram-sponsored spelling bee, going back to the inaugural Canspell event in 2006.
• Sophie Whalen of Brother Rice is making her fourth appearance. Her previous best showing was 7th in 2018.
• Four spellers are making a third appearance: Macdonald Drive’s Tanish Bhatt (best finish: 4th in 2017); Macdonald Drive’s Maria Burton (best finish: 13th in 2016); Cloud River’s Liam Cull (best finish 16th in 2018); and Roncalli’s Brian Wang (best finish: 14th in 2017).
• Nineteen spellers are making a second appearance.