His first word was “wand,” and by the end of the competition he proved to be a spelling wizard.

Oliver Brown, a 12-year-old from Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, won an occasionally glitchy Maine State Spelling Bee on Thursday night by correctly assembling “radiopaque.”

Oliver Brown

The definition of his winning word: being impervious to X-rays or other forms of radiation. Brown said he doesn’t remember ever seeing “radiopaque” in print, but he offered its letters with confidence.

He said he considered the endings of “cake” and “opaque” and opted for the latter.

“I don’t know the difference between the structure that would make opaque have a q-u-e,” he said. “I just kind of felt like that was what it was.”

After 15 rounds that took 86 minutes and 92 words, Brown emerged triumphant from a field of 10 county winners who connected with pronouncer Jeannine Diddle Uzzi on a Zoom call that was not always perfect. It marked the second year in a row for a virtual state bee, because of restrictions to safeguard against the spread of the coronavirus.

“Next year, in person!” Diddle Uzzi declared afterward.

Brown is the first sixth-grader in at least 14 years to win the state bee, sponsored by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and Dead River Co. He advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will return after being canceled last year, but in a modified format.

Preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds normally held just outside of Washington, D.C., in late May instead will be held virtually later this spring and early summer, with semifinals scheduled for June 27. Only about a dozen spellers will advance to in-person finals in Orlando on July 8, to be televised live on ESPN.

All 10 county champions received a Scrabble game courtesy of L.L. Bean. Brown and runner-up Maya Franklin, a seventh-grader from Stratton School in Franklin County, will receive engraved trophies.

Because of the pandemic, none of the county bees were held in person this year and only 55 schools took part across Maine, down from the usual hundred or so. Brown won the Cumberland County crown with a virtual test that required a tiebreaker after a student from Portland matched his score.

“I didn’t expect to go very far at all,” said Brown, who goes by Ollie. “All the other people at the spelling bee were really, really good. They put up a fun competition.”

Ollie is the second oldest of Kristen and Michael Brown’s five children. He thanked his parents and his older sister Ella for helping him study word lists. He likes to draw as well as read and is also a fan of the Green Bay Packers.

Ollie did Thursday’s spelling from his bedroom, with his father nearby to help with technical issues and for moral support. Ella and their mom watched from downstairs while his younger siblings played in the basement.

“I’m just so grateful for this opportunity,” he said.

Last year’s state champion, Rose Bolduc of Lincoln Middle School in Portland, decided not to compete this year. The only returner from last year’s state bee was Rebecca Aponte, a home-schooled eighth-grader from Bangor who was runner-up to Bolduc last spring and to Sebastian Shields of Saco in 2019.

Aponte wound up third Thursday night, dropping out in Round 12. That left Franklin and Brown. Both misspelled in Round 13, with Brown mistakenly placing a “k” in “defunct” and Franklin omitting the “e” in “fulsomely.”

In the succeeding round, Brown got “vetch” and Franklin missed “veneer” to set up the championship word for Brown, who twiddled with his fingers after hearing Diddle Uzzi pronounce “radiopaque.”

“Sometimes I just fidget around with my hands,” he said. “When I get my word, I try to figure out the different parts of it.”

Poor internet connections led judges to ask one speller to turn off her camera and spell. Judges had to confer three times via text messages to determine whether a spelling was truly incorrect or simply the result of unstable service.

Later, in Round 9, a speller was accidentally skipped, but Hancock County champ Makenna McDevitt spoke up and correctly offered “meddlesome.”

Round 10 proved a shocker, with all four remaining spellers missing their word, starting with Brown and “thutter.” Because everyone missed, they all remained in the bee.

“I thought it was over,” he admitted. “I was blown away that I got another chance.”

His next word? “Disgruntled.”

He was anything but.


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