He won the Spelling Bee 70 years ago. Here’s his advice for today’s competitors.

Cashore, a retired neonatologist in Rhode Island, won in 1954 at 14 years old. He was the star of a hometown parade, met then-Vice President Richard Nixon and went on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Cashore, a retired neonatologist in Rhode Island, won in 1954 at 14 years old. He was the star of a hometown parade, met then-Vice President Richard Nixon and went on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

Summary

‘Be modest about it,’ said 84-year-old William Cashore. ‘This isn’t the end of your life, it’s just the beginning.’

One of the oldest living winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, 84-year-old William Cashore, has advice for the champion being crowned Thursday.

“First of all, be modest about it. This isn’t the end of your life, it’s just the beginning," he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Second, I would say keep your focus on proper words, proper usage, proper grammar."

Cashore, a retired neonatologist in Rhode Island, won in 1954 at 14 years old. He was the star of a hometown parade, met then-Vice President Richard Nixon and went on the “Ed Sullivan Show." But he doesn’t talk about it much.

“Once in a blue moon I will tell somebody I was a spelling champion," he said. “I was always very proud of it, but there’s no need to brag about it."

Today, the annual Spelling Bee is different than when Cashore won 70 years ago. It is a multiday televised event in Maryland featuring hundreds of children from around the country who won their regional spelling bees. Competitors must be in eighth grade or below, and be under the age of 16, according to the organizers. Past winners have received national attention, met government leaders and received cash prizes.

Cashore said competitors should keep using their spelling skills once the Bee is over.

“If they’re reading something incorrectly spelled, worded or formulated, it might be their obligation to let people know it’s wrong," he said. “If your spelling is sloppy, people will wonder if your thinking is sloppy."

Growing up

Cashore’s mother drilled him on spelling and his father coached him on roots, prefixes and suffixes. He was eliminated from a local qualifying competition in Pennsylvania in 1953 because he misspelled the word “gherkin." The next year, he won the local competition and went to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national spelling bee.

His winning word was “transept," which refers to the arms that form a cross in a cross-shaped church.

“It was a word I knew but had never been asked to spell," he said.

He said the words used in recent competitions are more technical. Last year’s champion, Dev Shah, won after correctly spelling “psammophile," meaning an organism that thrives in sandy soils or areas. Two years ago, Harini Logan correctly spelled the word “moorhen" for the win. (A moorhen is a type of bird that lives near water.) Both were 14 when they won.

“If you put me in the Spelling Bee right now with the words they used, I would be lost," Cashore said. “I wouldn’t do that well unless I studied a whole new vocabulary list."

As the 1954 champion, Cashore won an Encyclopaedia Britannica and $500 that he used in part to pay for trolley and bus rides to school. The prizes for the winner on Thursday will include $50,000 and a three-year membership for the online encyclopedia.

Cashore proceeded to meet some of the most famous people of the era. A day after his victory, he met Nixon—the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was out of town.

“He was very pleasant. He showed me pictures of his hometown in California," Cashore said.

Cashore then went on the “Ed Sullivan Show," where he said the host was personable but busy running the show, and a game show called “I’ve Got a Secret."

He competed in a spelling bee on the show against the actress Laraine Day and baseball player Leo Durocher. Cashore won easily.

“It wasn’t competitive," he said.

After winning the Bee, he started high school, where his classmates did some good-natured ribbing.

“They called me ‘speller,’ " he said, noting they often asked him for help proofreading their homework.

The next chapter

Cashore attended the University of Notre Dame and medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Many people didn’t know about his spelling talents, because they weren’t relevant to his studies. He was drafted for the military and served in the U.S. Navy for about two years, until around 1970.

He didn’t tell his wife Pauline, whom he married in 1969, about his spelling-bee history until about six months after they met. They had two daughters and four grandsons. Pauline died in January.

Cashore was a professor at Brown University’s medical school, where his spelling background was helpful.

“One of my useful functions as a faculty member was proofreading manuscripts and papers for some of my colleagues," he said. “They’d bring their papers and their writing to me."

Retired for more than a decade, he spends his free time babysitting his grandsons, listening to classical music, exercising and reading. He is currently reading a book about Greek myths.

He keeps his Spelling Bee trophy at his home in East Greenwich, R.I. He said the trophy broke off at the base once after one of his daughters knocked it over. They had to get it repaired at a trophy store.

“That was the only bad thing that ever happened to it," he said.

Cashore offered advice for the winner of tomorrow’s trophy.

“Keep your modesty," he said. “Don’t make a big deal out of this until you see what it holds for you in the rest of your life."

Write to Alyssa Lukpat at alyssa.lukpat@wsj.com

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