Sacramento woman faces off with family in AARP spelling bee

08/11/2012 12:00 AM

08/11/2012 6:11 PM

Beyond making a humorous investment in a few cans of alphabet soup, Sacramento resident Chris Wagner claims she hasn't trained for the 17th annual AARP National Spelling Bee, scheduled for today in Wyoming – but maybe she should have.

After all, she faces stiff competition: One of her opponents will be her cousin, 67-year-old Michael Petrina, a Virginia man who won the event in 2009 and placed second last year. And her three siblings, who are scattered across the country, will be vying for this year's title as well.

"My sister in Virginia said, 'I'm tired of us getting together only for funerals, so why don't we try doing the AARP spelling bee together?' " Wagner, 60, a longtime communication professor at Cosumnes River College, said earlier this week.

"I thought it sounded like something we'd like."

The spelling bee for people 50 and older is intended as a fun way to emphasize the importance of keeping minds engaged and agile as folks grow older, said AARP California spokeswoman Christina Clem.

"Studies show that the younger brain is faster, but the older brain can do more complex reasoning," she said. "People fear a decline of mental acuity with age, but that doesn't have to happen."

Unlike participants in national spelling contests for young people, the older adults undergo no rigorous and intense qualifying rounds: All they have to do to qualify for the AARP spelling bee is to register and pay a $40 fee, Clem said. More than 50 people have done so this year.

They face a written spelling exam of 100 words, with the top 15 contestants competing on stage for the title.

People from 24 states have registered, said Clem.

That number includes not only Wagner and her cousin but also her siblings: Prudence Hopkins, 56, a Virginia hospice chaplain; Roger Risley, 62, a retired parks employee from Seattle; and Joan Risley, 67, a retired editor who lives in Phoenix.

The last time all four were together was in 2004 at their father's funeral, Wagner said. The siblings grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where their parents were educators.

"My mother always did the reading for the eighth-grade spelling bee at our little Catholic school," said Wagner.

At the AARP spelling bee in Cheyenne, she said, the siblings will likely end up rooting for their cousin, Petrina, the former champion.

"We'll see," she said. "The goal is to determine who's the better speller of the four of us. I suspect my brother, Roger, is.

"I may be the worst because I've been grading the bad spelling in my students' papers for years. I should get a handicap."

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