Champ spells his way to regional bee

Published 8:24 am Wednesday, February 25, 2009

COURTLAND—Walter Francis can always blame bureaucracy.

That’s the large word that landed the12-year-old in the runner-up position of Saturday’s regional spelling bee.

“I spelled it with an o-c-y instead of an a-c-y,” the Southampton Middle School seventh-grader said good-naturedly Tuesday while holding his trophy.

Walter placed second in a field of 36 spellers who won bees at their schools in South Hampton Roads, Western Tidewater, the Outer Banks and northeastern North Carolina. The bee was held in the studios of WHRO television and broadcast live. It was sponsored by The Virginian-Pilot.

“We were very, very proud of him,” said his mother, Allison Francis, a kindergarten teacher at Capron Elementary School.

Francis and her husband, Walter, cheered the youngster on at the studio and sent text message updates to his sisters, Hattie, 20, and Clara, 17.

“I had no idea it would be such a big to-do,” his mom said about the bee. “It was intense. Some of those parents are really, really into it. It was a learning experience for all of us.”

Walter’s entire family is celebrating his near win.

“I think that it is so wonderful,” said his grandmother, Joan Bunn of Newsoms. “He’s really smart and has his head in a book all the time.”

Francis said her son has been an avid reader since he was 4 years old.

“He reads all the time and I’m pretty sure that’s where he picked (his spelling abilities) up,” she said.

Jane Stephenson teaches Walter in the gifted program at SMS.

“He has an extensive vocabulary and enjoys learning about words,” she said.

Stephenson began coaching students in October before the school’s spelling bee in January. Walter won that bee by spelling “renovate” and moved on to regionals.

Walter said he also would study at home, logging on to several times a week to practice there.

There were 911 basic words to learn and plenty other harder ones, too.

Walter wasn’t nervous at the bee, he said, until he started advancing in the competition.

“The worst part, really, was waiting for the person in front of me to spell, waiting to find out what word I would get next,” he said.

And what was Walter’s trick for spelling success?

“I tried to envision the word right in front of me and then divide it into syllables,” he explained.

Caroline Willett, a homeschooled sixth-grader from Virginia Beach, won the regional bee and advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will be held in Washington in May.

Bunn said the entire family, including his other grandmother, Emily Francis at East Pavilion, are rooting for Walter to try again in eighth grade — his last shot at the spelling bee.

“He’s going to win it all next year,” she said.

Walter said he isn’t ready to commit just yet.

“I don’t want to think about it,” he said. “If I do my heart will probably explode.”