HUERFANO — It’s hard to imagine today, but back in earlier times, spelling was considered not only a symbol of education, but also a standard platform for competition and even a form of entertainment. As early as 1882, a La Veta school teacher, Louie Livingston, organized a spelling bee for adults. The event was open to all who enjoyed showing off their spelling skills or watching others make fools of themselves, and proved so popular another was planned for the near future. Alas, Miss Livingston moved to Walsenburg and married the local newspaper editor, thus ending this type of fun for La Vetans. However, teachers continued to pound the niceties of spelling into their students’ brains and memories, and they competed within their classes and schools. Some schools even challenged others to contests, especially in the rural districts where students seldom got as far as seventh or eighth grade, having been put to work on the farm at 10 or 12 years old, so in-school competition was not keen nor even possible. This was back in the day when a student might be asked to spell “diphtheria” or “pellucid,” “obloquy” or even “phantasmagoria.” These words are hardly even in use today. The words we do use, like
“url” or “geoglyph” or “google”, would be totally unfathomable to them. Admittedly, in those simpler days before spell check, spelling was more important as a tool for advancement in education than it would become all these decades later. A person with a command of vocabulary and spelling could set himself, or herself, up as a stenographer, office clerk or typist. People with less certain English skills would hire these spellers to write or read letters for them, to help fill out official forms, or to tutor them in reading. A good command of spelling paved the way for the blue collar jobs so hard to come by in an industrial or rural area. And if a kid couldn’t spell, but was a good talker, he or she could enter the county oratory contest. This competition was based on delivery and logic of a speech as well as its content including use of vocabulary and enunciation of words. Perhaps if they couldn’t spell ‘em, but they could pronounce them and use them correctly in a sentence, they could be a winner. Exactly when the official county spelling bee came into existence is unknown (to this writer, anyway), though later State Senator Sam T. Taylor said he had won the county title about 1916 when he was a student of Cameron. By 1924, it apparently was a standard event occurring every March. Competitors were students of the fifth through eighth grades, and results varied as to whether the younger or older contestants won the day. A county contest in 1917 featured two divisions based on age. It is telling that many of the earlier winners were the children and/or grandchildren of immigrants. These students’ forebears came to the area without much understanding of the basics of English, much less the knowledge to spell words so foreign to them. They worked especially hard to insure their children not just learn, but master, the rudiments of their adopted language, and many of these children continued to so excel at this assignment they went on to become teachers and school administrators themselves. Consider the surnames of some early spelling bee winners in Huerfano County, such as Krpan, Cerjanek, Cominatti, Odak, Lovdjieff, Tomsic. These enthusiastic spellers were not going for the gold, but for the glory – the singular achievement of being the best speller in their school, their county, possibly their state or region and even, that most coveted of honors, in the nation. Winners from the counties went on to state in the earliest contests, and later regional finals, in which they faced off with contestants from large and small schools located throughout Colorado and Wyoming. Possibly some of these students received remunerative gifts from their proud families for their efforts, like a shiny dime. Mostly, they received encouragement and hours of drill from their hopeful parents and siblings. Also, some schools, or at least their teachers, were more attentive to their students’ spelling needs and aspirations. The coal camp school of Cameron, for instance, produced winners for nine straight years, from Dorothy Cerjanek in 1929 right up to Theresa Marvelli in 1938. The school might have continued to produce quality spellers except that after 1938, the upper grades went to Walsen School and left Cameron with only a primary department. The 1927 champ, Edward Race, also from Cameron School, won the state spelling bee. Edward went on to be valedictorian at Huerfano County High School in 1931, in a class of 64 which was at the time the largest class of graduates since the school’s inception in 1897. Cameron was a property of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. CF&I prided itself on its in-company designed schools, which were roomy, airy and competitive. The company encouraged scholastics as well as social and athletic excellence, but let the county choose and pay the teachers. Still, its camp schools won the county spelling bees regularly, including those at Ideal, Tioga, Pictou and Walsen. In later years, another school took over dominance of the contests. This was the once mighty Rouse school that formerly included all eight lower grades plus, for a while, high school. In 1901, the school had an enrollment of 85, plus 35 in the kindergarten (not to mention just two teachers). By the 1950s, the mine had closed, the town was basically dismantled, and the school was called Dand, boasting just one room. Nevertheless, its students Clara Vezzani won for three straight years beginning in 1948, and then the Spelling Micek Family took over, with Alberta winning for the second time in 1953, then winning the state bee and going on to Washington D.C. for the finals. Her cousin Richard Micek won in 1954, and Alberta’s brother Lonnie won in ’55. Brother Leonard Micek was the outstanding speller of 1961 and ’62, and finally, though as a student of Walsenburg Junior High rather than Rouse, sister Regina was the family winner in ’67. Rouse’s school had closed after the 1961-62 term. The other spelling family was the Villalons. Joseph, a student of St. Mary parochial school, won in 1987 and ’88, then his sister Karen took over for the next three years. Karen was present as a contestant in 1990 for the 50th Annual Colorado Spelling Bee. Since Walsenburg was a city of fair size in the ‘teens through the ‘50s, there were two competitions. While the rural schools, including La Veta and Gardner, faced off with one another, Walsenburg public schools competed with St. Mary Catholic school, so there were, annually, a county winner and a city winner going off to regionals. The 1958 city title winner, Dennis Maes, a seventh grader at St. Mary School, went on to take the Colorado and Wyoming parochial school title in 1959, despite not being the city champ in the regular bee that year. About 1962, the city and county contests were combined so only one overall winner was selected.