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‘R-E-T-I-R-E-D’ is how MaryNell Baldwin spells her future

Queen of the bee steps down

MaryNell Baldwin is presented with the dictionary that will be used at future events by Mark Raffler, Kent ISD teaching and ELA social studies education consultant 

Kent ISD — It was rather baffling, admitted MaryNell Baldwin, retired Kent ISD teaching and learning consultant.

A few years ago, as the Kent ISD Educational Service Center went through an office reconfigure, some of the items in the Teaching and Learning Services and Support area, including the dictionary Baldwin used for the annual Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee, were placed in a warehouse. It was never found. 

“I figure what happened is that someone saw it and thought, ‘No one really uses a dictionary anymore,’ and just tossed it,” Baldwin said.

So for her retirement, the Kent ISD Teaching and Learning staff presented Baldwin with a Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary. It will be dedicated in her honor and used for the annual event, held in March at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

“I very much appreciate how Baldwin was just so supportive, and open and willing to help out at all times,” said Mark Raffler, Kent ISD teaching and ELA social studies educational consultant, who recently presented the dictionary to Baldwin.

MaryNell Baldwin and Mark Raffler, Kent ISD teaching and ELA social studies education consultant.

The ‘Bible’ of the Bee

The Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee is a regional event that is affiliated with the Scripps National Spelling Bee. During her 30-year tenure at Kent ISD, Baldwin led several county-wide student activities such as the We the People and the spelling bee.

“You say ‘Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee,’ and pretty much anyone associated with it immediately thinks of MaryNell,” said Kelli Campbell, director of teaching and learning. Campbell said she has received a number of phone calls from parents and students in appreciation of the programs Baldwin led and how impactful they were on their lives.

While many people use smartphones to look up the spellings of words, a dictionary is mandatory at a spelling bee.

“If someone spells a word and says it is an alternative spelling, we verify it in the dictionary,” Baldwin said. “Also, if we run out of words in the pronouncer’s guide, we then go to the dictionary and randomly open it to a page and pick out a word from that page. This will sometimes happen when you have two or three students dueling for that final top spot.”

Merriam-Webster unabridged became the official competition dictionary in 1958. Even today, in its study resource guide, Scripps mandates that every word used in the annual competition comes from there.

MaryNell Baldwin instructs students before the start of the 2023 Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee (Erin Zacek)

The Queen Bee Retires

When Baldwin came to Kent ISD, she already had experience organizing and planning large events through her volunteering for several civic organizations. 

Started by Sister Rosemary Smith in the early 1980s, the Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee was first a competition between Grand Rapids area public schools, Catholic schools, and Christian schools. When suburban schools asked to participate, Kent ISD was approached about organizing a regional bee, Baldwin said.

Spelling bees at schools and counties feed into the Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee, which as a regional event sends its winner to the national bee in Washington D.C. Sixteen students participated in the 2023 Greater Grand Rapids event, with Rockford now eighth-grader Brady Bowers taking the top spot. About 231 students from across the nation, of which 10 were from Michigan, participated in the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

Baldwin has passed the spelling bee torch to Maddy Burns, who is also part of the Kent ISD Teaching and Learning Services and Supports team.

Due to the state retirement rules, Baldwin said she will not be involved in the 2024 event, except perhaps as a volunteer. 

“I mean down the road, if they would like me to do something in a certain capacity, well maybe.”

Read more from Kent ISD: 
‘Lexicon legend’ from Rockford takes the stage
Grateful to ‘bee’ in person

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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