Longtime National Spelling Bee director steps down

The longtime executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is stepping down.

Scripps announced Paige Kimble’s departure on Monday after 22 years in charge of the world’s preeminent spelling competition.

Kimble’s final year on the job ended up being the first year without a bee since 1945. The event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is normally held in late May at a convention center outside Washington and includes hundreds of spellers from around the country, along with a handful of international competitors. ESPN televises the final rounds of the bee.

Cincinnati-based Scripps has yet to announce plans for next year’s bee, but schools have been holding competitions this fall that serve as the first steps toward qualifying. Kari Wethington, a Scripps spokeswoman, said Monday that “the bee team is planning to host a competition in 2021.”

Like many others with prominent roles in staging the bee, Kimble is a former speller. She won the bee in 1981. A year earlier, she finished second to Jacques Bailly, who is now the bee’s longtime pronouncer.

Kimble began working for Scripps in 1991, shortly after graduating from college, and became executive director in 1998. During her tenure, the national exposure on ESPN and the quirky charisma of the young spellers, who can compete through the eighth grade, have led to increased popularity for the competition.

In order to win, spellers must demonstrate a mastery of roots, definitions and language patterns that allows them to figure out even those rare words in the dictionary they haven’t seen before. Spellers devote hours a day for years of their lives to preparing for the bee, often working with private coaches, and use study guides that have taken some of the mystery out of the Scripps word list.

In the past two decades, most of the winners of the bee have been Indian-American, many the children of highly educated first-generation immigrants.

Last year’s bee ended in an unprecedented eight-way tie after Scripps ran out of words difficult enough to challenge the elite spellers remaining on stage. Some observers argued that the bee had failed in its mission, but Kimble characterized the result as a triumph.

“Look at these kids. They worked so hard and they achieved so much,” Kimble said at the time. “I think it’s the best night ever for the bee.”

Scripps did not provide a timetable for Kimble’s departure but said it would conduct a national search for her successor while also considering internal candidates.

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