Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

MADISON, Wisconsin — Americana on the Fourth of July. The ice-cream social, the fair, the quilts at grandmother’s house, along with the village art show, egg toss, bake sale, and bursts of prairie wildflowers wherever you turn.

Midsummer also revives the radically refreshing story of America’s first national spelling bee. It almost got lost, but I found it right here. In President Teddy Roosevelt’s bright time, it became an American parable of race, especially timely now after June’s flood of tears for the Emanuel 9 church murders in South Carolina.

Spelling bees still hold a grip on our American soul. A century ago in Ohio, one became a soul-searching drama on black and white, north and south, on a national stage. The great educator, Booker T. Washington, there to witness Midwest race matters, was dazzled. News went around the nation and world. Down South, people wept for joy in their churches – African Methodist Episcopal churches. A girl of color, Helen Bolden, won against mean Jim Crow.

When in Wisconsin on the Fourth, I turn to my late great-grandfather Warren E. Hicks, the source. This is where I knew him as a merry old gentleman turning 100 with a birthday party given by the governor’s wife. As a small girl, I knew he loved a good yarn. And what a fine voice.

Little did I know my great-grandpa’s greatest story. I discovered it in the papers in this house near Lake Mendota, 30 years later. Documents revealed that “Mr. Hicks” organized the first national spelling bee in 1908. It was held in Cleveland on June 29, 1908. It was considered worthy of human rights awards. Why?

“Nineteen hundred eight,” was how he said it in a speech. The event was held 107 summers ago. “The Hippodrome” was where 34 city teams met to compete. The spelling teams, from Boston to Buffalo, Pittsburgh to New Orleans, enjoyed boating on Lake Erie, and seeing Cleveland — the fifth largest city. Cleveland had a large number of Jewish immigrant children, and Helen, on the home team. She ranked last on her team.

I flew downstairs to ask my grandfather, a man of few words, why this never came up in conversation? I told my sister, a screenwriter, and we worked on a script on the spelling bee — not yet produced. Everybody loved the true end of the story.

Newspapers covered the festive run-up to the bee, but not what lurked behind the innocent scenes. My great-grandfather’s narrative, given in a speech, tells us New Orleans was favored to win the whole event, slated to have 500 spellers. But then their teachers saw a girl of color, Helen, on Cleveland’s team. They weren’t having that. As he told it, their girls did not come to the North to compete with “colored” children. Teachers threatened to leave town just before the spelling bee.

Mr. Hicks, assistant superintendent of Cleveland’s schools and his boss, Mr. Elson, met the New Orleans teachers at school headquarters. There they told the Southern teachers that Helen had earned her place on the team. They would not take her off, but hoped the girls of New Orleans would “stay and spell.”

Well, they did. Please note this kind of Midwestern fairness does not get a lot of press. Cleveland was also a safe haven for fugitive slaves before the Civil War.

New Orleans didn’t spoil Cleveland’s big day by boycotting the bee. They took the hand of reason. Yet word must have gotten round to Helen, a lovely girl whose picture we searched for in the archives. She was galvanized to win that bee. In a few days, she studied hard enough to win the whole thing. She was the only one, out of 500 students on stage, not to miss a single word in a suspenseful morning.

The throng in the Hippodrome roared when Helen was named the champion eighth-grade speller in the U.S. — “without a dollar, without a flower, just the honor.” Even the Southern girls stood and cheered for her. The spelling bee story traveled like lightning as a parable of American democracy — reaching Africa.

In the simple words of Warren E. Hicks: “It demonstrated again that in our schools, every boy and every girl has a fair and even chance.”

Good going, Great-grandpa. A beacon of fair play. Happy Fourth, America. Fairness is not that hard, to simply do the right thing.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit

Photo: Erin M via Flickr

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.