It was an anxious day at Bergen Community College as local students competed in a semifinal of the 75th North Jersey Spelling Bee on Saturday afternoon. And Barney Gallassio can relate.
The 50-year-old Old Tappan resident spent the afternoon enunciating carefully and ensuring the quality and integrity of the competition in this, his fifth year as pronouncer and 10th as judge for the North Jersey bee.
But the man now sitting behind Webster's Third New International Dictionary was once in the youngsters' position and knows how it feels to step up to the microphone.
"They're so nervous," Gallassio said of the 64 students, from Grades 3-8, on hand Saturday. The students qualified for the semifinal round by winning their school bees.
The event, featuring students from the counties of Bergen, Passaic, Morris, Essex and - for the first time - Rockland, is sponsored by The Record and Herald News. The winner earns a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., this May, and a free trip there courtesy of The Record and Herald News.
In the first semifinal held last week, 17 students qualified for the Thursday night final. On Saturday, 15 others earned a spot with them and a chance to be crowned champion like Gallassio.
As a seventh-grader from Brooklyn, he became the 1974 New York City champion, but didn't go to the national bee because of illness.
"Can you believe that?" Gallassio said of missing the Scripps event in D.C. "Horrible. It was painful."
He will never know what could have been if he went to Washington then, but his dream of winning a national title still lives nearly 40 years later.
After turning 50 last year, Gallassio entered the AARP National Spelling Bee. He missed the final round by two words. The competition begins with a written test and sends the top 15 to Cheyenne, Wash., for the final. He is entering again this year.
"My goal is to make it to the stage," Gallassio said.
But he was not focused on Cheyenne on Saturday. Instead he read definitions, offered languages of origin and alternate pronunciations and made sure the children knew exactly what word to spell.
"It's probably the most important thing we do," Gallassio said of himself and the other judges. "We want to make sure the kid is saying the right word before they start to spell."
Offers of advice
Before the competition, the meeting room at Moses Technology Center filled with spellers, family, friends and even some teachers. Parents offered last-minute words of encouragement before the spellers took their seats in the front of the room.
Teachers Karen Weiss and Toni Montalbetti of Lincoln Middle School in Passaic searched the group of kids for eighth-grader Michelle Rowicki, whom they helped prepare and came to support. They agreed on the most difficult part of the competition for Rowicki and the rest: "Being in front of all these people," Weiss said.
It is not easy. The man reading the words knows that. But Gallassio loves it, as speller or judge. He will be back in the pronouncer's seat again Thursday for the North Jersey Spelling Bee final. The champion crowned that night earns the trip to Washington that Gallassio never took.
Going to the final
The 75th North Jersey Spelling Bee final is Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Ciccone Theater at Bergen Community College in Paramus. “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro will make a presentation after the competition. The 32 finalists are: