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Spelling bee draws 245 contestants

May 28, 1997 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ They studied their dictionaries, special word lists and just about every other conceivable source. Now it’s competition time _ and they’re looking for a little luck.

The 245 pupils, ages 9 to 15, are national finalists in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, which is opening a two-day run that will result in a champion being crowned Thursday. The contest has become an annual event since Frank Neuhauser got ``gladiolus″ right in 1925.

``Luck has to be with you,″ said Joseph Landreneau, 14, an eighth-grader from Alexandria Country Day School in Alexandria, Va. He is making his third try for the title, having been waylaid last year by ``wastrel,″ a reject or discard.

``You can cover as many words as you can try,″ he said. But, ``There’s over 500,000 words in the dictionary. There’s probably 300,000 words you don’t know.″

The Louisville Courier-Journal held the first contest to promote spelling and help children improve their vocabulary. By learning new words, the youngsters learn ideas as well.

Though E.W. Scripps Co., the newspaper chain, is the chief sponsor, only 13 of the 245 sponsors are associated with the Cincinnati-based company.

Those who have tried before agree that luck can play a role in deciding whether a contestant gets knocked out early in the finals or makes it to the last rounds and a chance at the top prize of $5,000 and other goods, including a laptop computer.

``It really all depends on what words you get,″ said Beth Dorman, 14, an eighth-grader from Chicago who made it to the finals twice before. Two years ago, she placed sixth. But last year, ``desuetude″ did her in, causing her to place 22nd. The word means ``discontinuance.″

``I had never heard of it,″ said Beth, one of 17 spellers who attend home school. This is Beth’s last shot, since the competition is closed to anyone past the eighth grade.

Contestants preparing for the grueling competition start with the sponsor’s main list of difficult words _ the Paideia, rooted in the Greek word for education.

They also use words from the ``1997 Sponsor Bee Guides.″

Beyond that, the kids scrounge, getting words from the Scholastic Assessment Test, compact discs and other sources.

For many contestants, this is a big family outing, too.

LaDonna Kay Johnson, 13, a seventh-grader from Hawk Springs, Wyo., has a six-person cheering section for her national debut. Her father, mother, three sisters and a cousin have made the trip from their farm near the Nebraska state line.

``I’m ready for it to happen,″ said LaDonna, another home-schooler who practices by rewriting misspelled words five times.

Young Landreneau has another family tradition. His brother, Eric, 17, took part in the 1990, 1991 and 1992 national bees. His sister Elizabeth, 11, finished sixth in the regionals.

All five siblings, plus mom and dad made the trip with Joseph.