As soon as the letters left his 13-year-old lips, Jim Coe knew he was in trouble.
The year was 1951, and Coe, the two-time defending champion at the Kings County Spelling Bee, had misheard the judges' instructions.
“They asked me to spell 'accelerate' but I thought they said 'exhilarate,'” said Coe, now 79 and smiling in the Fair Oaks home where he has lived with his family for the past 45 years.
Back then, though, Coe was not smiling, especially after the judges told him he had gotten the word wrong.
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"I thought, ‘I’m doomed," he said.
Turns out, the opposite was true. His competitors ended up missing more words than he did, and he won the spelling bee for the third year in a row. His victory earned him a spot in the Central Valley Spelling Bee, an event that endures to this day and will be held Wednesday morning at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center.
More than 500,000 kids from 13 counties were eligible to participate in this year’s event, sponsored by The Sacramento Bee, Shriners Hospitals for Children, the Sacramento Kings, Sacramento River Cats and Sierra Health Foundation. Through local competitions, the number of participants has been winnowed down to 62. Wednesday’s winner will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.
Coe, who went on to win in Sacramento in 1951, will be on hand Wednesday as one of the judges. He said his participation has resurfaced memories, long filed away in boxes and scrapbooks, of the times he got his name in the paper for his spelling prowess.
Alas, the 1951 Sacramento Bee article botched his last name, spelling it "Cole." And though he spelled his name “Jimmie” back then, the caption on his triumphant moment spelled it “Jimmy."
The irony of those spelling errors is not lost on Coe, who said he hopes his presence on Wednesday will serve as a reminder of how participating in a contest like this can be a life-changing experience, exposing young people to a wider world of opportunity.
In Coe’s case, he was a kid from a tiny school near Hanford whose eighth grade graduating class had only 12 members. He grew up in Grangeville, a town that in the 2010 census still had fewer than 500 residents. Coe came from working class roots. His dad learned to be a machinist during World War II. The family lived on a 2-acre spread surrounded by farmers.
“It was a country life,” he said.
But he was good in school. He loved to read. He loved math. He played the violin. He constantly had "his nose in a book,” said Ethel, the girl next door who later became Jim’s wife and the mother of their three daughters.
His erudite ways didn't always make him the most popular kid around. After he won the Kings County Spelling Bee for the third time, “some people said, ‘Let someone else have a chance,'" he said.
But Coe wanted to win. He came to Sacramento to compete in what was then the fourth annual Central Valley Spelling Bee. It was held on May 12, 1951. At that time, America was at war in Korea. Harry Truman was president. Earl Warren was governor of California.
And Jimmie Coe? He was in the first teenage year of this life and taking on 25 kids -- one each from 25 participating counties -- in a competition that felt like a really big deal.
The kids and their guardians were put up at the old Senator hotel downtown. They were taken on a sight seeing trip, which included a stop at the Sacramento Zoo.
Then the boys and girls, hailing from cities and town in the vast areas between the Oregon border and the Tehachapi Mountains, got down to the business of properly arranging letters.
Coe said he has no memory of the words he spelled to win the competition. But he does have mementos from his victory, including the gold watch he was awarded and the program from the banquet held at the old El Rancho Motel on what was then known as Davis Highway (but is now West Capitol Avenue in West Sacramento).
In an Associated Press photo that Coe has pressed into his scrapbook, his arm is being held aloft by the second place finisher, Maxine Showalter of Fresno. “It filled up my world,” Coe said of winning the spelling bee.
Coe later would graduate from the prestigious California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He would become a civil engineer and build a distinguished career at CalTrans and the state Department of Water Resources.
But winning the Central Valley Spelling Bee remains among his proudest accomplishments.
The contest went dormant for a period before resuming in 1984. Since then, it has been directed by Molly Evangelisti, who is part of the McClatchy family. The competition, a link between the McClatchy company and the communities it serves, promotes literacy. It also fosters focus and academic discipline in young people about to enter high school.
Coe said he drew strength and confidence from his win. “My prize was $600 in scholarships, which was a considerable amount in 1951,” he said. Last year, he attended the spelling bee, taking his gold watch with him. He was invited to be a judge this year.
The key to winning, Coe said, is keeping your cool under what can be intense pressure. And, of course, hearing the difference between words like "accelerate" and "exhilarate."