Frank Neuhauser dies at 97; first national spelling bee winner

The word had already baffled one contestant when Frank Neuhauser confidently spelled it right — “G-L-A-D-I-O-L-U-S” — to win the first national spelling bee in 1925.

Luck was his ally. Although he had studied for months with his mill-worker father, 11-year-old Frank knew he could win when he learned that the word was “the name of a flower.” He had been growing gladioluses for years.

Neuhauser died March 11 at his home in Silver Spring, Md., according to the Francis J. Collins Funeral Home. He was 97.

He grew up to be an electrical engineer and a patent lawyer, but the orthographic fame he first experienced as a seventh-grader followed him throughout life.

For besting eight other national finalists, Neuhauser received $500 in gold pieces. With the other competitors, he met President Coolidge at the White House, and his hometown of Louisville, Ky., marked his return with a parade.

“Spellbound,” a 2002 documentary credited with helping to heighten national interest in the spell-off, includes an interview with Neuhauser, by then a celebrity among young contestants who sought his autograph.

For Neuhauser, there was no “back in my day” crowing, only humble observation. Modern competitors, who were “smarter” and “better trained,” faced words that were “much more difficult,” he repeatedly said.

“It was a lot easier back then,” Neuhauser told the audience of the 2008 national bee. “There were only eight competitors instead of 288. I’d never make it now.”

Frank Louis Neuhauser was born Sept. 29, 1913, in Louisville to Frank and Ida Neuhauser.

His spelling aspirations were because of his father, who “was very interested in his son and what he could and could not do,” Neuhauser told ABC News in 2005.

The two studied an hour a night, with his father hoping “for rainy weekends so I would not be itching to play baseball,” Neuhauser said in a 2002 interview with Scripps Howard News Service.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, which started the national bee, sponsored Neuhauser’s trip to the Washington, D.C., competition. Taken over by Scripps Howard in 1941, the contest is now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

His bee winnings would help pay for college, Time magazine reported in 1925. Neuhauser earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Louisville in 1934 and two years later joined General Electric as an engineer.

During World War II, he served in the Navy and was stationed in the United States.

After earning a law degree from George Washington University in 1940, Neuhauser became a patent lawyer for GE and stayed with the company until 1978.

For nearly a decade, he was a patent attorney in Washington, D.C., before retiring in 1988.

Of his long-ago spelling triumph, Neuhauser said he won on “an easy word,” the Associated Press reported in 2008. “Nobody could miss it, except the second[-place] girl did.”

He is survived by Virginia, his wife of 66 years; four children, Charles, Linda, Frank and Alan; and five grandchildren.