The Detroit News Spelling Bee

Detroit News Photo

Each year huge crowds would attend the Spelling Bee finals. Here thousands have gathered at the State Fair Coliseum for the 1931 finals.

Justine Pearsall, the winner of the first Spelling Bee “Spelldown” in 1922, with her prize–a giant dictionary. Her championship came when she spelled “Hawaii” correctly after her opponent, George Nurse, an African-American and sixth-grade champ, failed to capitalize it.

The Detroit News Spelling Bee got its start with an argument between Detroit Schools Superintendent Frank Cody and Malcolm Bingay, a Detroit News editor who said Detroit school children couldn’t spell. In the Fall of 1921, the contest began, with teams from public, private and parochial schools throughout Detroit.

Teams that first year included one from Goldberg School’s Deaf Division, a group of wounded World War I soldiers who attended Cass Tech’s night school, and perhaps the most multicultural group, Bishop School’s, whose team was composed of Italian, Russian, Black, Jewish and Greek children.

The final ‘Spelldown’ was held in February, 1922, at the Majestic Theatre on Woodward Avenue, and the first winner was Justine Pearsall, from Crossman School in Detroit.

In the Thirties, the crowds were so large that the finals were held at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum, where many thousands watched the contest.

When the News dropped the event in 1981, there was such an outcry that it was reinstated the next year, in partnership with Lawrence Institute of Technology, whose President, Richard Marburger, had won the finals in 1942.

Girls seem to have the edge: the first boy didn’t win until 1939, and female winners far outnumber the males.

Finalists go to the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., sponsored by Scripps Howard.

Mary McCarty, center, is being congratulated by other finalists after she won the 1929 Spelling Bee finals. Boy Scouts served as guards for the contestants, most of whom were girls.

Former Champions

1922 — Justine (Pearsall) Baker,Crossman School, Detroit

Mary McCarty, center, is being congratulated by other finalists after she won the 1929 Spelling Bee finals. Boy Scouts served as guards for the contestants, most of whom were girls.
1925 — Dorothy (Karrick) Kurth,Harms School, Detroit

1926 — Vivian (Bremer) Overholt,Grosse Ile Public Schools

1927 — Hulda (Farmell) Knowles,Foch Intermediate School, Detroit

1928 — Bessie (Doig) Holmes,Ruddiman School, Detroit

1929 — Mary Elaine (McCarty) Sherlock, Nolan Intermediate School, Detroit

1930 — Ruth (Des Jardins) Hearn,Ruddiman School, Detroit

1931 — Blanche (Krell) Berger,Hutchins Intermediate School, Detroit

1932 — Wilma (Pyle) Piercy,Ford School, Highland Park

1933 — Ruth (Tenebaum) Ritter,Hutchins Intermediate School, Detroit

1934 — Ann Mary (O’Reagan) Dosch,St. Charles Parochial School, Detroit

1935 — Helen (Gronas) Shingleton,Maple Grove School, Wayne County

1936 — Doris (Shinn) Smalley,Junior High School, Plymouth

1937 — Iris Fem (Jenkins) Crandall,Coolidge School, Ferndale

1938 — June (Gumerson) Rampinelli,Hampton School, Detroit

1939 — William Wiegand,Noble School, Detroit

1940 — Lee O’Connell,Woodworth School, Dearborn

1941 — Louis E. Sissman,Detroit Country Day School, Birmingham

1942 — Richard Marburger,Grace Lutheran School, Highland Park

1943 — Anthony Scipione,A.E. Smith School, Riverview

1944 — Dorothy (Simon) Lopatin,Crossman School, Detroit

1946 — Marcia Anne Loomis,Barnum School, Birmingham

1947 — Gary Neil Miller,Wallaceville School, Wayne County

1948 — Eugene Pattison,Walled Lake Consolidated School

1949 — Patricia Pearsall,Barber School, Highland Park

1950 — Kenneth Lambe,Van Dyke School, Detroit

1951 — Beverly Simon,Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit

1952 — Raymond Sokolov,Hampton School, Detroit

1953 — Raymond Sokolov,Hampton School, Detroit

1954 — Linnea Koljonen,Woodworth School, Dearborn

1955 — Linnea Koljonen,Woodworth School, Dearborn

1956 — Michael Swirsky,Schulze School, Detroit

1957 — William McLaren,Lakeview Jr. High School, St. Clair Shores

1958 — Lawrie MacMillan,Detroit Country Day School, Birmingham

1959 — Tracy Nabers,Emerson School, Detroit

1960 — Diane Saltz,Emerson School, Detroit

1961 — Carol Corbishdale,Chippewa Jr. High School, St. Clair Shores

1962 — Cynthia Cahn,Kingswood School, Bloomfield Hills

1963 — David Torby,Schulze Jr. High School, Detroit

1964 — Christopher Hunt,Detroit Country Day School, Birmingham

1965 — Michael McColl,Chippewa Jr. High School, St. Clair Shores

1966 — Stephan J. Kleen,Berkshire Jr. High School, Birmingham

1967 — Kathy Keller,Berkshire Jr. High School, Birmingham

1968 — Robert Vallade,Seitz Jr. High School, Riverview

1969 — Dennis Rosinski,Cambridge Jr. High School, Garden City

1970 — John Hudson,Adams Elementary School, Birmingham

1971 — Jennifer Heymoss,Goodale Elementary School, Detroit

1972 — Sharyl Gaiser,
St. Luke Lutheran School, Mt. Clemens

1973 — Dawn Millington,Trinity Lutheran School, Utica

1974 — Malia Eppings,Grosse Pointe Christian Day, Grosse Pointe

1975 — Timothy Sutherland,Clawson Jr. High School, Clawson

1976 — Pamela Yee,Hardin Middle School, Detroit

1977 — Robert Zeiger,Chippewa Jr. High School, St. Clair Shores

1978 — Mary Beth Teasdale,Fuhrman Jr. High School, Sterling Hts.

1980 — Louella P. Dizon,Detroit Country Day School, Birmingham

1982 — Tom Amrine,East Hills Jr. High, Bloomfield Hills

1983 — Lily Woo,St. Christopher School, Detroit

1984 — Roberta Smith,St. Scholastica, Detroit

1985 — Kris Gumper,Parchment Middle School, Parchment

1986 — Teli Tolbert,Whitney Young Middle School, Detroit

1987 — Sarah Trombley,Bates Academy, Detroit

1988 — Robin Covey,St. Peter School, Harper Woods

1989 — Robin Covey,St. Peter School, Harper Woods

1990 — Nathan Erb,Zemmer Jr. High, Lapeer

1991 — Michelle Perez,Avondale Middle School, Rochester Hills

1992 — Chandan Reddy,Detroit Country Day School, Birmingham

1993 — Daniel Kim,Bloomfield Hills Middle School, Bloomfield Hills

1994 — Stephanie Cleland,Guardian Angels School, Clawson

1995 — Christopher Mullins,North Pointe Elementary School, Southgate


The finalists pose for a group portrait before the last round in May of 1950. Kenneth Lambe, in the center of the second row, was the eventual winner.