The Queen Bee of Mount Horeb

Local eighth-grade science teacher Kellie Monroe Aquino nabs her third title in the Scandahoovian Winter Festival's Adult Spelling Bee, created by journalist Jane Burns.
Kellie Monroe Aquino is standing at the microphone during the adult spelling bee in February 2022 while a panel of judges to the left looks on.
Photo by Nina Cheney.
Kellie Monroe Aquino (at the microphone) won her third title at the adult spelling bee before a panel of judges and a packed crowd.

This all started the other day when I was trying to reach my friend and journalism colleague, Jane Burns, who was late getting back to me.

“You caught me on my busiest day of the year,” she wrote, “when I host the annual adult spelling bee in Mount Horeb.”

Burns then added: “If you ever want some seriously goofy entertainment, you should come out and watch it sometime.”

Well, who doesn’t want some seriously goofy entertainment, especially now?

Since I’d already missed this year’s bee — it was Feb. 12 at Martinson Hall in Mount Horeb — I figured my next best option was to write about it.

Jane pointed me toward this year’s winner, Kellie Monroe Aquino, an eighth-grade science teacher at Mount Horeb Middle School.

Kellie And Jane

Kellie Monroe Aquino (left) is an eighth grade science teacher and a three-time champion of the adult spelling bee, which was created by Jane Burns (right).

“She’s a seemingly quiet woman,” Burns noted, “with a killer competitive streak who loves this bee. When we were debating what to do about it (because of COVID) she told me she’d compete if we were standing outside in a ditch in February, because she loves it so much.”

Aquino played down her “competitive streak” when we spoke last week, but it’s clear she’s passionate about the bee, which draws a spirited audience.

“It’s a really fun event,” Aquino says, “and there isn’t anything out there like it, that I know of, for grown-ups like me.”

The bee dates to February 2012, when it debuted as part of Mount Horeb’s Scandihoovian Winter Festival. The festival was looking for a way to utilize the village’s historic one-room schoolhouse.

Burns says she walked past a table of festival people at a local café who said they were thinking that an adult spelling bee could fill the bill. “Excellent idea,” Burns replied, adding that if they needed any help, they should let her know.

“Several months later,” Burns recalls, “twice in the same week, someone said to me, ‘I heard you’re running a spelling bee.’ This was news to me, but I took the idea and ran with it.”

Pre-pandemic, the schoolhouse did host the bee. Competitors over the years included former Capital Times sports editor Adam Mertz, a two-time champ, and Ellen Holk, a former one-room schoolhouse teacher who competed in the bee twice while she was in her 90s. Holk’s goal was to win before her 100th birthday, but she died in 2014 at 98. Now the unofficial nickname for the winners’ plaque is “The Spellin’ Ellen.”

Burns assembles the word list each year, and says she tries to create rounds that are progressively harder.

“But even as the words get harder,” she notes, “I try to use words that the average adult might know even if they are hard to spell — cappuccino, cemetery, accommodate.”

In the later rounds, she’s less concerned about familiarity. “If you’re going to be the champ, you’ve got to earn it.”

Aquino, this year’s champion, is a three-time winner, and in the year of her first victory —2016 — she won by spelling a final word she’d never heard of: ponerology, the study of evil.

“I totally took a flyer on it,” Aquino says. “I had no idea how to spell it. I just guessed. And I won.”

Aquino, 52, grew up in southeastern Ohio and said she has more or less repressed a memory of spelling bees as a kid.

“I think I was in one once,” she says, “and I went out pretty early. It was a little traumatic and I never went back.”

Still, she’s always been a good speller, and a voracious reader, the kind that takes note of new words and banks them.

Aquino came to the Madison area to work at the Legislative Audit Bureau. Later, she signed on as a substitute teacher to put her on a schedule that matched that of her own kids. “It turned out I loved it,” she says. She returned to school and got a teaching license. Last year was her first teaching full-time in Mount Horeb.

Aquino initially entered the bee in 2015. “I went out on the word ‘consensus,’ which I know how to spell,” she says. “I got flustered because it was my first year.”

It might also have been that Aquino’s “lucky jacket” needed time to acclimate. Each year in the bee she wears a jacket that belonged to Hazel Kundert, who taught Kellie’s husband, Mark Aquino, in grade school in Monticello and remained a close friend of the family. Kundert, who died in 2011 at age 100, had taught in a one-room schoolhouse.

“I had it in my closet,” Aquino says of the jacket, “and given that we were competing in a one-room schoolhouse, I thought, ‘This feels like a place Hazel’s jacket would like to be.’ I thought it would bring me luck, and it has. I always wear it.”

Last year’s bee was held virtually, and Mertz, the former sports editor, withdrew from the competition so he could provide play-by-play commentary on a livestream of the event.

When it looked like this year’s bee might have to be outside, the folks at Martinson Hall, a local event venue in a recently renovated brick building next to the Driftless Historium, graciously stepped up and offered their space.

This year’s bee went 21 rounds. The last eight were a duel between Aquino and Anastasia Warpinski, a local writer and editor and “a very tough competitor,” in Aquino’s estimation.

At the end, Aquino spelled “fallacious” correctly.

Warpinski missed on “blatherskite.”

Aquino was given her potential winning word, “cerise,” a moderate red color.

Aquino got it right. Mount Horeb had a three-time champion.

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