For the young contestants at the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, the challenge is to spell words as diverse as “succedaneum” and “maieutic.”
But for his role in the nation’s largest and longest-running educational competition, Alex Cameron had his own demanding challenge: He had to accurately pronounce words as diverse as “succedaneum” and “maieutic” for the competing young spellers.
Cameron, the voice of the National Spelling Bee for two decades and the nationally televised competition’s most recognizable figure, was found dead Monday of an apparent heart attack at his home in Kettering, Ohio. He was 65 and had spent the weekend in Cincinnati at a Spelling Bee word panel meeting.
For nearly four decades, Cameron was an English professor at the University of Dayton, where he taught courses on 19th century American literature and the history of English, earning a reputation among colleagues for his dedication, intellectual curiosity and dry wit.
But for the last 22 years, the unpretentious professor found himself thrust into the spotlight each year as the National Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer, providing about 250 young contestants with the words that might turn them into the spelling bee champion.
In the process of serving as the voice of the televised competition, Cameron became a spelling bee icon. Print and TV reporters often sought him out as the contest approached, and competitors asked for his autograph.
A National Spelling Bee study guide included a CD of Cameron calling out words so that competitors could become accustomed to the sound of his voice while practicing their spelling.
Cameron even appears in this year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “Spellbound,” which tracks eight young competitors as they train and compete in the National Spelling Bee.
Cameron was devoted to the competition. He participated in a panel that meets several times a year to review words and rate their difficulty, and he was helping Scripps Howard officials create a spelling bee dictionary.
“I have encountered many, many words in my work with the bee, and I cannot think of a single one that adequately describes the void that has been created by the death of Dr. Cameron,” Carolyn Andrews, the National Spelling Bee’s word list manager, said this week.
“We will do our best to maintain the excellence, the attention to detail, the compassion and the humor that Dr. Cameron embodied.”
Each year, as the annual spelling competition neared, Cameron holed up for two weeks in his sister’s home in Dearborn, Mich., where he spent up to six hours a day polishing his pronunciation of about 1,000 top-secret, sometimes tongue-twisting words that had been selected for the competition.
“I have to work to make them sound natural,” he told the Columbus Dispatch in 1997. “For some of the medical and technical words, I have to stop and practically count syllables.”
The moment of truth for Cameron would come in late spring in a Washington hotel, when he sat onstage at a table with a pitcher of ice water, a glass and a black, loose-leaf binder filled with the words, which he pronounced for contestants in a voice that has been described as baronial.
“It was simply a rich voice,” said Paige Kimble, the spelling bee’s director. “He did have a Midwestern accent, but he was very good at understanding the diacritical markings in Webster’s and in actually delivering the pronunciations to the children.”
As sometimes nervous contestants took their turns at the microphone, Cameron might be asked to repeat a word, provide a definition or use the word in a sentence.
Kimble marveled at the way Cameron “could relate genuinely and positively with children of all different backgrounds and demeanors. He simply had that genuine ability to connect with the children to help them understand the often-complex information he had to provide to them.”
The Notre Dame-educated Cameron, who learned to read before he entered kindergarten and began browsing dictionaries for fun in the third grade while growing up in Dearborn, felt the best spellers are readers -- those who have been exposed to a variety of words and understand the principles of their construction.
“The memorizers tend to look good in the first couple of rounds, then they suddenly disappear,” he told the Columbus Dispatch.
The spelling bee can take an emotional toll on those who are eliminated.
Cameron recalled one girl who began wailing after she was eliminated. His concern was alleviated when the girl’s 8-year-old brother poked his head out from behind a curtain and said, “Oh, she does this all the time.” (The spelling bee offers comfort rooms, where the contestants can wail or sob in private.)
Each year, at least one contestant or parent would blame Cameron’s pronunciation for a misspelling -- but it was usually during the early rounds, Cameron said, when an overconfident speller failed to listen closely.
Few were aware of the preparation the unflappable Cameron went through for the competition each year.
“I’ve thought about having a pronouncing bee, where I would spell the word to the kids and make them say them,” he told NBC News in 1997. “But that would be mostly just malicious revenge, I think.”
He is survived by a sister, Mary, and a brother, John.
A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Immaculate Conception Chapel on the University of Dayton campus.