Pronouncer, Like Spellers, Must Be Perfect

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Friday, July 3, 2020

The Jackson County Spelling Bee continues Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 9 a.m. at our Central Library, and is open to the public. RSVP here.

Saturday may not be quite what Bernie Norcott-Mahany imagined when he said yes three years ago to serving as the pronouncer for the Jackson County Spelling Bee.

A nice, typically modest and quiet event has blown up into something far bigger. Good Morning America, the Today show, Inside Edition, CNN, and other national media outlets are flying in. Local affiliates are plotting their own coverage. At the center of all the fuss: two unflappable young spellers who’ve stayed standing through 66 rounds and forced an extraordinary overtime.

Not far from the spotlight — and the attendant scrutiny — is Norcott-Mahany, a 15-year fixture at the Library’s L.H. Bluford Branch.

If there’s little to no margin for error for the spellers, the same goes for him. Norcott-Mahany delivers their words. Anschluss. Balalaika. Schadenfreude. Zeitgeber. He’s expected to get the pronunciations right.


“I don’t dread it,” he says. “I’ve done storytelling. I’ve done some acting. And I’ve taught for 30-odd years, either full time or part time. I’m used to being in front of a group so I’m not particularly worried about it.
“There’s part of me that would be somewhat saddened, I guess, if I weren’t here to see the end of the journey.”

Make no mistake. He’ll be prepared.

By Saturday, when fifth-grader Sophia Hoffman and seventh-grader Kush Sharma resume their duel at 9 a.m. in the Library’s downtown Central Library, Norcott-Mahany will have reviewed the entire list of 200 new words provided by officials with the Scripps National Spelling Bee and 60 or so backup words pulled by local officials from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. He sounds each of them out. If not entirely sure about a pronunciation, he goes to Merriam Webster’s online audio tool. If he’s still uncertain, the word is crossed from his list.

Note, for the record, that Hoffman, Sharma and 23 other spellers went the first 66 rounds two weeks ago without a pronunciation challenge.

If one comes Saturday … well, it’s part of the game. “We’ve got a procedure,” Norcott-Mahany says. “I don’t take it personally.”

He’s a man of letters, holding master’s degrees in Ancient Greek from Loyola University in Chicago and in English from Syracuse. A part of the Bluford staff since 1998, Norcott-Mahany also teaches Greek mythology at Johnson County Community College and is involved in Kansas City’s nonprofit Gorilla Theater – best known for its annual summer solstice productions of classic Greek plays. He writes program notes for each show, draws up pronunciation guides, and occasionally takes the stage as an actor.

It was Mary Olive Thompson, the Jackson County Spelling Bee’s co-coordinator, who pulled him in as the bee’s pronouncer. Now the Kansas City Public Library’s outreach manager, she was working with Norcott-Mahany at the time at the Bluford Branch.

“He’s been excellent,” she says. “He’s patient. He takes time to prepare. He’s really concerned that the spellers understand him. And every year, he says ‘yes.’”

This, as it turns out, is a year like no other. Saturday is expected to draw scores of family, friends, reporters, and other spectators to the Central Library. Only the contestants’ family members, other invited guests, and media representatives will be allowed in Helzberg Auditorium, where Hoffman and Sharma will compete for a spot in the Scripps national bee in Washington, D.C., in May. The proceedings will be live-streamed to a projection screen amid a watch party of sorts in the Library’s main-floor Kirk Hall.

“I haven’t felt particular pressure since I don’t know what to expect,” Norcott-Mahany says.

“We’ll see Saturday what it’s like.”