By Marlena Hartz
The dictionary, tilted slightly, nearly engulfed an entire cushion on the Gillooly’s L-shaped couch. Sitting diagonally from the 2,662 page reference book, with his hands folded in his lap, Zachary Gillooly looked composed. But for this Yucca Junior High ninth-grader, the dictionary has been a friend and, at times, a foe.
Gillooly, twice now the regional spelling champion, will compete in the 78th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee beginning on Wednesday. The event is held in the nation’s capitol and final rounds are broadcast on ESPN.
With 273 dedicated spellers, the competition is fierce. Last year Gillooly tied for 95th place.
“Last year, I missed reresupper. I put an ‘a’ in it,” Gillooly said, shifting his arms, and resting them once again in his lap.
Pronouncing reresupper, seemingly plucked from some dusty archive of retired vocabulary, is easy for Gillooly. He explains the meaning of the word, now the subject of a song composed by his uncle and cousin, just as effortlessly: “It’s an after-dinner snack.”
Due to age limitations, Zach will not be eligible for next year’s Scripps Bee. His father, a retired Air Force training manager, is looking forward to his son’s retirement from the tangled world of letters. Patrick Gillooly, coach to his son, is just as entangled in that world. The duo spends hours in the family living room pouring over the Paideia booklet, a compilation of possible bee words sent by Scripps. The Gillooly’s 2005 copy is worn, the edges creased, the black cover faded white with use.
“To do well at a national level takes a commitment that frankly I never would want him to do,” the elder Gillooly said. “I don’t want him to be sitting on a bus with a dictionary.”
According to father and son, the end of Zach’s spelling era won’t be mourned. But, still, their tones raise and their eyes widen when conversation trickles down to words.
“There are little tricks.” Gillooly said, revealing some of his son’s secrets to success. “He studies Greek and Latin, and English, African, and Persian prefixes.”
Zach added his own tag.
“The little words are the hardest,” he said, pointing to a section of words in his Paideia, grouped together not because they lack letters but because they all relate to size.
“But you can usually figure it out,” said his father, happily expounding on the blessing of root words.