Judging by his résumé, Jacques A. Bailly is eminently qualified to serve as the official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a job he has held since 2003.
He won the bee in 1980 when he was 14. He received a Ph.D. from Cornell University in ancient philosophy and wrote a dissertation on a pseudo-Platonic dialogue called the Theages.
He is a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Vermont and teaches courses on Plato, Aristotle and etymology. He said he is now learning Old Norse and Sanskrit and likes to garden and “hoard wood.”
But asked how he got the job at the bee, he said simply: “because they asked me.”
Professor Bailly, 55, who projects a calm demeanor onstage and speaks in an even, avuncular tone, shuns showmanship and game show antics.
He said he understands that the bee is as much a media and public relations event as it is a spelling competition, but he believes that the spellers should also avoid trying to become the center of attention.
“They aren’t up there to act,” he said.
Even in the face of the most adorable speller, Professor Bailly remains collected. He never patronizes. He never coos.
When a speller sing-songed, “Howdy, Dr. Bailly,” during the 2016 spelling bee, the pronouncer did not take the bait.
“Howdy, Alex,” Professor Bailly replied in a steady voice.
He said he does not worry about the long-term effects of losing on the children.
“I understand that they think it’s tremendously important and they might cry and all that,” Professor Bailly said. “But I don’t think in the long run that this is going to hurt them. I don’t see any cruelty. I don’t see any meanness.”
As for the winner, victory should not feel like such a seminal event, said Professor Bailly, who has a son, 17, and a daughter, 19.
The winners “are representative of the other spellers who worked really hard,” he said. “Every single one of them that I’ve ever talked to has a very strong sense of humility and said it could have been anyone else.”
When he competed, he recalled how hot and exhausted he felt onstage and “the feeling, as each word was given, of ‘oh, I know that’ or ‘thank goodness I didn’t get that word.’”
When he won, he was relieved that it was finally over.
“I could finally do something other than sit there in the hot TV lights,” he said.
Professor Bailly, who pronounced for the Canwest Canspell Canadian National Spelling Bee “until its unfortunate demise,” and for the Korean National Spelling Bee, said he plans to pronounce for the Scripps indefinitely.
He said: “I will do it as long as they keep asking me.”