Houstonian recalls winning National Spelling Bee


He finishes New York Times crossword puzzles with ease and is always in the middle of a good read.

"A lot of stories--adventure, detective stories," Irving Belz said.

Fifty-nine years ago, Belz was in the middle of a different kind of word challenge--The National Spelling Bee.

"It was a pretty big deal," he said.

Growing up in Memphis, sports wasn't his thing.

"I was always little and skinny and pretty un-athletic," Belz said.

But he found his way to competition through spelling bees.

"It gets a little tense at times," he said.

And in 1951, at 13, he was on the national stage and poised to win.

"The young man who came in second that year missed what I think should've been a real easy word," Belz said.

Cuisine was that word. But Belz nailed it and then won with an adjective rooted in French: Insouciant.

Today, all of his memories of that time are preserved in a scrapbook. His mother collected photos and clippings to go along with his trophy. She was so proud.

Back then, the bee wasn't televised so few people saw the dramatic moments, like a fainting episode or any protests.

Belz believes the words have gotten harder. The 72-year-old psychiatrist now tells children to read to see words in print and in context and to learn basic Greek or Latin to be a successful speller.

"A lot of out words the roots are from Latin or Greek," he said.

In fact, it helped him to earn his medical degree.

"Most of the anatomical nomenclature is Latin," Belz said.

And he still has it. When we gave him a pop quiz, he spelled the word 'crotalic' accurately. That, by the way, is an adjective that means of or related to rattlesnakes.

But he's quick to deny his winning word.

"Are you insouciant?" we asked.

"No," Belz replied.

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