They entered the banquet room amid whispers and stares — three men in tuxedos, a woman in a sleek black dress. They took their places at the head table, next to roses and a trophy.
The word of the night: Threepeat. Naturally, they could spell it.
Zach Kieffer, Gene Tomashosky, Nora George and Jay DeGraff represented Servpro of West Pasco, a company that restores buildings damaged by fire and water. Their toolkit comes with a dictionary, and they know how to use it. And Thursday night at the Spartan Manor in New Port Richey, they wore their game faces for the 10th annual West Pasco Chamber of Commerce Spelling Bee, a big money-maker for various charities.
Servpro, emphasis on the pro, first won two years ago in a contest that featured a word that still leaves the also-rans scratching their heads — Baksheesh, Persian for certain forms of bribery in the Middle East and Asia.
And speaking of bribery, no fewer than a half-dozen spellers made their way to moderator Al Torrence before the latest challenge began, offering to buy him a drink. Once he began, Torrence, drink in hand, disavowed any corruption. He then dug into his folder for a printout of words and outlined the lone criteria: "I just have to be able to pronounce it.''
Torrence, a local lawyer who seems to volunteer his time for every charitable cause, has the timing of a stand-up comedian, not to mention irreverence (yes, I looked it up). After barking the rules, he said this: "You've probably heard there are no stupid questions. There are.''
The Cadence Bank team had the dubious distinction of falling first after butchering "lymphatic.'' Torrence, sympathetic as always, said he had been offered money to make cadence the next word.
The Tampa Bay Times team breezed through the first two rounds only to leave out a "p'' in Appaloosa. This brought an enthusiastic visit from Bob Memoli of Florida Luxury Realty, the primary sponsor, who dressed like a honey bee in black and yellow. As teams fell, Memoli used a "stinger'' to pop three balloons ("You. Are. Out!'') Two observations: Memoli must be a very secure man, the way he skipped around the banquet hall. And, it takes real courage for some people to wear horizontal stripes.
Memoli ran himself silly as Torrence slurred "juvenescent'' and then "epididymitis,'' which did in Servpro and two other former champs: Pasco-Hernando Community College and the Rotary Club of New Port Richey. Now just two teams remained — the Daughters of Penelope and the Rotary Club of Seven Springs. They both missed "Schadenfreude,'' "inguinal'' and "solecism'' before the Rotarians scored with "suffrutescent,'' which all of you will recognize as "wood-like.''
The new champs gave each other credit, posed for pictures, clutched their trophy. No gloating or end-zone dances for these classy literary geniuses.
Friday morning, still baffled how we managed to misspell "Appaloosa,'' I set out to learn more about the victors. I wouldn't call them ringers (necessarily), but let's just say Mary Barzelay is aka Merriam Webster. She spent 13 years as the media specialist (aka librarian) at Bishop Larkin Catholic School and has master's degrees in education and library science from Duquesne and Pittsburgh universities.
Then there are Dr. Parveen Vahora, a laparoscopic gynecological surgeon, and Sue Carper, a retired registered nurse. Medical-based words that doomed so many others were easy pickings for these women.
And rounding out the team: Roz Fenton, who recently retired after 23 years with the Pasco Clerk and Comptroller's Office and spent 19 years on the board that coordinates efforts by the clerk's office, Department of Corrections, the Sheriff's Office, Department of Juvenile Justice and other agencies. She's about to start a new role, volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem.
I mention all this not because the champions need or even want the glory, but because it makes me feel better about losing. They're really smart.
In truth, there were no losers at this event. Joe Alpine, the chamber's executive director, said the event netted $7,700 that will be distributed to charities.
That's spelled s-u-c-c-e-s-s.