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Sandy Sansing presents Hayden Roman with a $75 check after the Pensacola Christian Academy fifth-grade student took third place in the Sandy Sansing Spelling Bee at Booker T. Washington High School on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.
(Photo: Tony Giberson/tgiberson@pnj.com)

By Rebecca Carlson

*This article originally appeared in print and online in the Pensacola News Journal on Jan. 24, 2018.

For more than three decades, Sandy Sansing has been the force behind the annual spelling bee, and this year was no different.

The longtime auto dealer was in the audience at Booker T. Washington High on Monday as 41 students from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties competed in the fifth-grade portion of the 42nd annual Sandy Sansing Spelling Bee.

“This is so important to the kids, the parents, and their families,” Sansing said. “It’s so nice for them to get some recognition.”

One by one, the seats on stage emptied, leaving one championship match winner.

The competition was tense, and nearly everyone in the auditorium couldn’t help but mentally spell along.

Students sat nervously in their seats, swinging their feet back and forth while anxious parents with clenched hands held their breath with each letter. Kids brushed their hands across their foreheads, saying “whew” after spelling words like “dedicate.” Each correct spelling gave students more confidence while family members held up cellphones to capture every moment.

Every participant is already a winner, having successfully competed in their school’s competition to be eligible for the spelling bee. Winners of each grade level compete in an overall middle school and high school competition, where additional cash prizes and ribbons will be awarded at the preliminary and championship level. The middle school competition was Tuesday, and the high school competition will be Thursday.

Sansing bought his dealership from Bob Salter and took over the spelling bee 31 years ago. Although every student’s success is important to him, the fifth-grade competition is his favorite night to attend.

“The kids are little, they’re nervous, but the parents and the teachers are there to support them,” Sansing said.

And so is he.

One little girl spelled “annoy” incorrectly and was eliminated early.

“That was a good try,” he told her, patting her on the back.

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Fifth-grader spellers take the stage during the 42nd annual Sandy Sansing Spelling Bee at Booker T. Washington High School on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. (Photo: Tony Giberson/tgiberson@pnj.com)

Sansing said the spelling bee is a way to recognize young people who have done well in academics. He grew up in public schools and now has grandchildren attending A.K. Suter who he hopes will one day compete in the spelling bee.

“Spelling is so important. It helps us with our communication skills,” he said. “Any way we can help young people appreciate education and do their very best I want to be a part of it,” Sansing said.

He also believes competition provides “a little reality” for the young participants.

More: 40% of Escambia residents have a college degree. Achieve Escambia wants to do better.

“There’s going to be winners and we can’t win everything, but let’s keep doing our best,” he said.

Some students brush off losses, while others feel like their world is crumbling. Sansing comforted another little girl who started to cry after spelling “withdraw” incorrectly.

“Oh, no,” she said, realizing there are no do-overs.

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Sandy Sansing opens the 42nd annual Sandy Sansing Spelling Bee at Booker T. Washington High School on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. The yearly event started with the fifth-grade spellers. (Photo: Tony Giberson/tgiberson@pnj.com)

“Self-esteem is so important for young people,” Sansing said. “It is at all ages, but young people are developing their personalities. To have good self-esteem they need to be good at things. They need to be good at school work.”

Many of the event volunteers have a strong background in education.

“The educators do a marvelous job,” he said. “There’s a passion among the teachers, retired teachers, principals, language arts and English teachers — they will keep it going. We’re the facilitator, they do the work. They’re the ones that make this happen.”

Having the support of Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and Santa Rosa Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick as well as coordinator Brian Spivey means a lot to the students and to Sansing.

But still, sometimes, parents or organizers question verdicts, and second chances are offered.

That was the case for Xavier M. Johnson of Bennett Russell Elementary School who practiced for months. He was almost eliminated in round one with the word “hearty” or “hardy,” but the confusion of that word afforded Johnson a second chance. He then took first place, winning $150 and the chance to compete against other middle school winners.

Max Little, a student at R.C. Lipscomb Elementary, took second place and $100, while Hayden Roman of Pensacola Christian Academy took third with a check for $75.

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Xavier Johnson, of Benny Russell Elementary, wins the fifth-grade division of the Sandy Sansing Spelling Bee at Booker T. Washington High School on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. (Photo: Tony Giberson/tgiberson@pnj.com)

Sansing enjoys watching students participate year after year and advance through the grade levels. Occasionally, former participants will stop him to express their sincere appreciation for his unwavering support of academics.

Sarah Richards, a former contestant at the high school level, said she remembers the spelling bee being a lot of fun. But she especially enjoyed the quality time spent practicing with her father.

“Back in the ’90s, I participated in the Sandy Sansing Spelling Bee, which was held at Cordova Mall,” Richards said. “I remember being given a booklet of words to study, which my dad would grill me on every night. He will always remember the word that tripped him up was ‘chiaroscuro.’ Ironically, I never learned to master that one.”

Like his dealership, Sansing expects to keep the spelling bee a family affair.

“We’ll keep doing it as long as we’re in business,” he said. “Our people love it, my family loves it.”