Cleveland law firm Benesch took home the trophy at the Literacy Cooperative’s fourth annual CLE-BEE Corporate Spelling Bee Sept. 12 at the City Club, spelling the word “Prosopography” (a study of a collection of persons or characters) for the win.
Twenty-seven teams of three in four “swarms”—legal, finance, corporate, and community services—gathered at the spelling bee to promote literacy and support the Literacy Cooperative in its mission to combat low literacy rates and encourage childhood reading.
It’s a fun event,” says Jim Foster, consultant for the CLE-BEE. “We’ve grown every year, and it’s fun because each year we try to do something lively and new.”
The final three "swarms" compete for the win.The teams were given a word, which they had to then spell on a white board and hold up for the audience to see. Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Emmanuela Groves presided over the entire spelling bee, ruling participants “out of order” at times. “She was part of the fun, too,” says Foster.
“Low literacy is a devastating problem in the community that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” says Foster. “There are 400,000 people in Northeast Ohio who can’t read above an eighth-grade reading level. They can get along OK, but they can’t read medical instructions, they can’t get into training programs to advance their careers.”
At the event, one team from each swarm spelled enough words correctly (each team can misspell up to two words before elimination) to move on. The four teams to advance to the finals were Benesch, Medical Mutual, ideastream, and Cuyahoga Community College.
This year, the event raised $80,000 in support of the Literacy Cooperative through team registrations and sponsorships that started at $2,500.
Cleveland journalist Mike McIntyre and comedian Mike Polk Jr. hosted this year's event, adding to the fun by asking audience members to spell words that describe each other. Polk asked the group to spell “diminutive,” making fun of McIntyre’s small stature, while McIntyre came back with “derivative,” as in unoriginal and uninspired.
Community leaders at the event threw out words to the teams. For example, India Pierce Lee, with the Cleveland Foundation, threw out “Eleemosynary” (of, relating to, or supported by charity). “I don’t think anyone had it right,” says Foster. “it was the first word of the final round.”
Pat Pastore of PNC Bank submitted “Obfuscate” (render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible); and Case Western Reserve University President Barbara Snyder challenged the group with “Purlicue” (the space between your thumb and index finger).
About 200 people attended the event, some spelling words, some to cheer their teams on, and others simply to support adult literacy in Cleveland, Foster says. While the cause is a serious one, guests made the evening a fun one, he says.
Some teams, such as the Cleveland Police, sponsored by CIBC Bank, and ideastream, sponsored by attorney Margaret Wong, participated just to support literacy and have a good time. “The Cleveland Police team said they didn’t expect to win, but they had a good time for the benefit of the Literacy Cooperative,” says Foster.
Other guests were astounded by one of Benesch’s team members, attorney Jim von der Heydt, who seemed to be infallible in his spelling. “They had this one guy who is just a crackerjack,” says Foster. “He really is brilliant.”
However, von der Heydt is humble in his team’s victory. “We worked as a team because that is our culture as top-notch lawyers,” he says. “Spelling by myself, I might not have even made the finals.”
A good education and a love of reading helped von der Heydt in the CLE-BEE. He majored in English while earning his undergraduate degree from Princeton and earned a doctorate in literature from Harvard before pursing his law degree at Cleveland Marshall School of Law at Cleveland State University.
He also admits that the Benesch team did misspell “Mycorrhiza” earlier in the competition (they missed the second R) and that they were at an advantage when the last word, prosopography, was given. “I think the other finalists’ spirits were broken a little earlier by eleemosynary, which is a good word for the Literacy Cooperative.”
And von der Heydt says he was tripped up by “jicama,” having eaten the Mexican root but not realizing the word was spelled with a “J.”
Foster took the opportunity at the CLE-BEE to also promote the Literacy Cooperative’s partnership with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which provides children from birth to age 5 with a free book each month in certain Cleveland-area ZIP codes.
A “dip jar” at the event allowed attendees to donate $36, the cost of books for one year, Foster says. It raised $2,700. “We were really pleased,” he says.