How do you spell ‘celebrity?’

West Homer Elementary School’s spelling bee last month began with almost four dozen eager spellers and eventually 

narrowed down to two: fifth-grader Peter Syth and sixth-grader Gus Roelof. One word put an even finer point on the competition, with Syth taking first place and Roelof the runner-up.

“More than 40 West Homer students in grades three through six competed for the top spot to compete at the state level of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said WHES Principal Raymond Marshall.

Winning word of the WHES bee: celebrity. The state spelling bee will be held at the Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage, Feb. 28.

Words and their origin are one of Syth’s long-held areas of interest.

“I’m just interested in different types of words, words you might say in context and then somebody ask what they mean and you can actually find out what they mean,” said Syth. 

He used the word “sanctuary,” from the Latin “sanctuarium,” as an example.

“It comes from ‘holy,’” Syth said of a clue to the word’s meaning.

English is the fifth-grader’s first language, but through his study of words and their meaning, he has developed an interest in Latin. That interest has led to another question.

“I’ve kind of always wondered why Latin was a dead language. That would be kind of a cool one to learn,” he said. 

An avid reader, Syth just completed “Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian.” Last of the five-book series, The Last Olympian’s popularity is evident by the place it held on the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists.

Interestingly, Syth’s favorite subject in school isn’t language arts, however. It’s physical education, particularly gymnastics and lacrosse. It is in the sports arena, cross country running to be exact, where Syth and Roelof also have competed.

“It’s normally me and him that are just sprinting as hard as we can in warm ups, trying to get in front of each other,” said Syth.

Syth’s love of words was encouraged by his father, Gary, when Syth was learning how to read.

“If we came across a new word, we’d talk about it and its connection to other languages,” said Gary Syth.

This isn’t the first year Syth has competed in the WHES bee. He was in the 2012 lineup, but didn’t do as well as he had hoped.

“He thought he’d do well, but he didn’t get into the finals and he was really bummed out, so we were hoping for better results this year,” said Gary Syth.

To prepare, Syth enlisted the help of his mother, Keri. 

“She would go through the spelling bee lists and quiz him on them and help him practice the ones he didn’t get right,” said Gary Syth.

When the day of West Homer’s spelling bee arrived, Syth’s mother, who teaches physical education at both WHES and Paul Banks Elementary School, was unable to attend, but his father was on hand.

“He was hoping to make it into the final round, but winning was a bonus,” said Gary Syth, adding that his son was both “a little surprised and a little cool” about the win.

In February, Syth and his family will head to Anchorage for the state bee. The winner of the state competition will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., May 25-31.

“His sister, Ellie, won the West Homer Geography Bee last year, so she got to go to Anchorage last year,” said Gary Syth.

With less than two months until the state bee, Syth said he’s “Not quite ready yet. I’ve got a little more studying to do.”

As he has in the past, community volunteer Gary Thomas was the WHES spelling bee pronouncer. The bee was coordinated by Suzanne Haines, WHES quest teacher.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at