Retired prof captures crowd, spelling bee title

By Joe Stumpe | October 2, 2023

Charlie Hunter battled Alicia Chennell in the finals of KMUW’s adult spelling bee last month.

Think all spelling bee champions are overachieving middle schoolers with minds racing as fast as their metabolisms?

Meet Charlie Hunter, who won KMUW’s first spelling bee last month at age 77.

Granted, the event was an adult spelling bee, but Hunter still bested a field made up largely of twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings. He became a crowd favorite in the process, with the audience at Wichita Brewing Company’s event center chanting “Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” each time he approached the microphone.

“There were some good competitors there,” Hunter, a retired biology teacher at Southwestern College in Winfield, said. “It’s a matter of — I wouldn’t say luck — it’s a matter of fortune.”

Hunter admits he was nervous going into the competition, even emailing an employee of the public radio station that he was “a little concerned. I don’t know if I’m going to be out of my league.” 

But his scientific background and love of reading served him well.

“Almost all the (words) I got, I was pretty confident of what it was. Maybe insouciance” — defined as casual indifference — “was the one that I wasn’t.” But he spelled it correctly.

At another point, he was thrown by host Fletcher Powell’s pronunciation of a word, but upon requesting the secondary pronunciation, correctly spelled “satiety” (the feeling of being full, or sated).

As the field of competitors dwindled, few in the crowd were giving Hunter a chance to win — including Hunter himself. He figured a young man who quickly rattled off his answers was the favorite. But the crowd couldn’t help but cheer the effort it took Hunter just to make it from his chair up to the stage and microphone. A little to his chagrin, he said, “I became an underdog real quick.”

His use of a cane, he said later, is a result of problems with his spinal cord and balance. The crowd might have cheered even louder had they known Hunter recently lost sight in one eye. 

“My aging has caught up with me,” he said, noting that as a field biologist, “I was outdoors all the time, jumping over rocks, scaling rocky landscapes.”

Hunter, a 1967 Southwestern graduate, taught for 42 years at his alma mater as well as 16 summers in the marine laboratory at the University of Oregon, where he earned his own graduate degree. Southwestern College’s marine biology program was his brainchild.

He managed to work a biology joke into the spelling bee when, after several contestants had asked Powell for a word’s etymology — that is, its origin — he requested an “entymology” — which is the study of insects.

Finally, the competition came down to Hunter and Alicia Chennell, a physician from McPherson. Each missed several words before Hunter correctly spelled a word that Chennell could not: akaryote, a cell lacking a nucleus. He then nailed his final challenge: caisson, which refers to a watertight retaining structure in engineering as well as the casket used in military funerals.

Hunter said a former colleague at Southwestern told him his win didn’t come as a surprise. When Hunter asked why, “He said, ‘Your attention to detail.’ That just goes with the territory of teaching biology and doing science, I think.”