In a spelling bee, nobody wants to go first.
But that’s exactly where Robert Muhar found himself in 1975 when he represented the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, in the 48th annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. At the time, he was a 12-year-old eighth-grader at Webb Junior High in Tampa.
Muhar still lives in St. Petersburg, where he works as a pharmacist at St. Anthony’s Hospital. Looking back, he said competing in the national contest was a great experience that taught him a lot more than just spelling.
This year, the Tampa Bay area is represented in the Scripps National Spelling Bee by Bruhat Soma, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Turner Bartels K-8 School in Tampa.
The 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee is being held this week at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. There will be 234 competitors. Actor LeVar Burton serves as host of the national semifinals and finals, which will be televised live on ION and Bounce on June 1 and 2.
Muhar goes to Washington
To get to the National Spelling Bee, Muhar had to win a series of preliminary spelling bees, starting with his eighth-grade class competition and the school-wide contest at Webb Junior High (now Webb Middle School) in Tampa. As one of the top spellers in the Hillsborough County Bee, he advanced to the Suncoast Spelling Bee in St. Petersburg, where he competed with the top spellers from each of six area counties. By correctly spelling his final word, “lithe,” he claimed victory and earned a trip to the national competition.
“I had moved to Florida when I was only 3 years old, so the trip to Washington, D.C., was my first real memory of traveling outside the state,” he said. “It was also the first airplane trip that I can recall. I remember being almost as excited about the plane ride as I was about the bee itself. I had always been fascinated with heights as a young child, so being able to fly was a dream come true.”
The National Spelling Bee was smaller and simpler in 1975 than it is today. The competition, held at the stately old Mayflower Hotel in downtown D.C., drew 79 contestants. They competed in a traditional oral spelling bee that stretched over two days, sandwiched into a week of sightseeing and parties for the spellers and their families.
Muhar remembers walking the grounds of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia. He and the other spellers cruised on the Potomac, visited Capitol Hill and enjoyed a VIP tour of the White House where then-first lady Betty Ford greeted them from a balcony overlooking the Rose Garden.
“Being able to go to the top of the Washington Monument and look down was great for me due to my enjoyment of heights and tall buildings,” he said. “I liked studying American history, so the trip to Mount Vernon was interesting. I also remember walking through the halls of our hotel and seeing the names of the famous people who had stayed there.”
The spellers also met a celebrity ― actor Will Geer, who played Grandpa Walton on the popular 1970s TV show “The Waltons.” There to film a TV special about the National Spelling Bee, Geer accompanied the spellers on some of the excursions, performed for them and attended the bee.
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Let the spelling begin
As speller No. 1, Muhar was seated in the front row of spellers on the stage in the hotel’s huge ballroom. He was first to approach the microphone to spell in front of the room full of parents, teachers, reporters and photographers.
Muhar survived the first four rounds, but then got the word “lebensraum.”
“It’s a German word that literally means ‘living room,’” he said. “It was ironic that I missed a German word, since I was actually born in Germany. I don’t speak German, but my mom does. She had accompanied me to Washington and had meant to give me some advice about spelling German words, but she did not get around to it. She was a little bit upset with herself afterward.”
He placed 61st and won $50.
“I was a bit disappointed because it was the first spelling bee I had ever lost,” Muhar said. “I soon got over it and was able to enjoy the rest of the week.”
The 1975 National Spelling Bee winner was Hugh Tosteson Garcia of Puerto Rico. He was the first winner from outside the 50 United States. His prizes included $1,000, a trophy cup, a plaque and a ruby-set medal.
Looking back, Muhar said failing to win the National Spelling Bee taught him a valuable lesson: “I think that this experience helped me deal with future disappointments better, such as getting a lower than expected grade on a test or in a course.”
Muhar said colleagues know he’s a good speller and sometimes ask him to proofread documents for them. But most of them don’t know he’s a former spelling champion.
“I have mentioned it to some of the people that I have known over the years, but most of the people that I currently know are not aware.”
Muhar said he occasionally watches the National Spelling Bee on TV, and even though he still considers himself a good speller, he thinks today’s National Spelling Bee is a lot more difficult than the one he competed in 47 years ago.
“I probably would not be successful competing against the top spellers of today,” he said.
Muhar holds degrees from Hillsborough Community College, Tampa College, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida. He’s been a hospital pharmacist for more than 30 years, mostly at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
He and wife Nancy, a nurse, have four children. When he’s not working, Muhar and his family enjoy movies, concerts, sports and cruises.
Freelance writer Amy Blakely is a retired journalist and university PR professional who lives in Maryville, Tennessee. She, too, was a participant in the 1975 National Spelling Bee, and is working to reconnect with her fellow contestants and tell their stories. To date, she has interviewed 46 of the 79 contestants from 1975.