DESHLER — The year was 1967, and 14-year-old Jennifer Reinke had just beaten out 72 other students to win the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.
During the two-day competition, the Deshler girl never flinched, never hesitated and was nearly flawless in her spelling.
“Jennifer Reinke is the most deserving person to win this contest because while she could have asked for the words use in a sentence or country of origin or other pronunciations, she never asked even one question,” one official said.
“Jennie,” as she is known to family, spelled words including appliqué, domiciliary, antimacassar, encephalitis, and mantelletta during the two-day event.
Reinke and 14-year-old Anne Clark of Huntington, West Virginia, each failed to correctly spell “spinnaker” late in the competition. Clark misspelled “milline,” with Reinke spelling both that and her winning word “Chihuahua” correctly to win the title.
Fifty years later, Jennifer lives in Hebron, and she and her family still remember that special summer of 1967.
“She was just stunned. She had a great big grin on her face,” said Reinke’s older sister, Patricia Schardt of Deshler.
Schardt, who is four years old than Jennie, attended the national bee with her parents, Richard and Edna Reinke, and with Jennie’s eighth-grade teacher, Marvin Engel, and Engel’s wife.
Jennie first won the Omaha World-Herald state spelling competition, which earned her a spot at the national bee at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“That was a wonderful trip. I had never been there before in my life,” said Jennie’s mother, Edna, age 91.
Edna, who still lives in Deshler, said her late husband decided they should drive to the nation’s capital as a way to see the sights along the way.
The spelling bee itself was quite the event, Edna said.
“It was amazing to see all those kids and how smart some of those little kids were,” she said.
Of the 73 contestants, there were 58 eighth-graders, including Jennie; 14 seventh-graders; and one sixth-grader.
Everyone in the family agrees that Jennie has always had a knack for words.
“She has a real unique talent for visually recognizing words,” said her younger sister, Sandi Wendell of Axtell. “I think that really helped her. She would basically memorize.”
Today, students learn the etymology of a word, asking for the word’s origin and definition before starting to spell.
“During her time, she said we basically saw the word and spelled the word,” Sandi said. “As long as she heard it well, she could recall it.”
From a young age, Jennie always had a fascination with words. By the time she started winning local spelling bees, she oftentimes could be found with her nose in the dictionary.
Both Sandi and Patricia said they would find their sister studying the dictionary as soon as the sun came up in the morning.
She studied and studied,” Edna said. “A lot of times in the morning when I thought she was still sleeping, she was studying her words.”
Sandi said Jennie still has a knack with words to this day.
“One time, we were at the (Reinke) company convention and there’s name tags,” Sandi said. “I would imagine there were 400 name tags on this table, and she walked up and my son was attending and she said they misspelled my son’s name.”
Sandi said she was amazed because there were so many name tags and Jennie picked out theirs in just a matter of seconds.
Patricia, a longtime teacher and principal, said she’s never seen anyone with a knack for memorization like Jennie.
“She memorizes very easily, especially like sequences,” Patricia said. “I’m not saying that because she’s my sister. It’s very unusual. She can look at a word once and know it.”
When it came to the national competition, Edna said, she was just amazed her daughter had made it that far. It was her husband, who died in 2003, who really thought Jennie could go all the way.
“Rich said, ‘I think she could win this,’ ” Edna said. “I said, ‘If she can just be here, that’s an honor in itself.’ He had high hopes she would make it. I guess he had it right.”
At the national competition, Patricia said, the judges had a short wall in front of them so competitors couldn’t see the dictionary if they would ask for definition or pronunciation of a word.
She said that was so if the judge had to open the dictionary, the competitor wouldn’t be able to see in what part of the dictionary the judge had looked — for example, near the front of the book for a word beginning with “C,” as opposed to the middle of the book for a word starting with “K.”
While the competition was not filmed in those days, Patricia said there were three voice recorders set up to record the competition in case there was any need for review of what a competitor had said.
When Jennie finished spelling “Chihuahua” and was named the champion, Patricia said, the media rushed the stage to take photos of and interview her sister.
“She was just stunned,” Patricia said. “She had a great big grin on her face.
“The runner-up, they gave each other a big hug. The media just mobbed her. I’ve never been around anything like it.”
For winning the national title, Jennie received $1,000 in addition to a weekend trip to New York City and three-day trip to Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada.
Before leaving the capital, the Reinke family was scheduled to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of its White House tour. However, they missed that meet-and-greet due to the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt. They did meet with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, however.
In New York City, Jennie was recognized from the audience on the June 11, 1967, episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.
Others on that episode included The Mamas and the Papas, who performed “Dedicated to the One I Love,” opera singer Rouvaun, who performed “On a Clear Day,” and comedian Richard Pryor.
“Everyone watched it on Sunday night, and to be able to shake his hand was exciting,” Patricia said of Sullivan. “We have a copy of that part where Jennifer was announced.”
One highlight for Patricia was meeting singer songwriter Paul Anka.
“The couple with us as hosts arranged for us to meet Paul Anka after the show and get pictures,” she said.
After spending the weekend in New York City, the family went to Montreal for Expo 67, the World’s Fair.
Edna said she wished her three younger children — Sandi, Russell and Robert — could have made the trip, as well, but with the youngest a toddler, there was no way they could have handled all the walking.
“I wish they could have been with us, but they were too young to tag along,” she said.
The family flew into Omaha on the way back from Montreal where Jennifer was greeted with a red carpet, a crowd of well-wishers and an invitation to dinner by the mayor.
Sandi said her grandparents took her and her brothers to meet the family as they got off the plane.
“There was quite the welcome when they came home,” said Sandi, who was 10 at the time. “My grandparents had to take me. I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two weeks.”
Back home in Deshler, a parade was planned and Jennie was even given a key to the city. But the fame did not end there.
“When we got back home, we got sacks and sacks of mail. Our post office almost couldn’t handle that,” Patricia said.
She said Jennie received letters, money and even gifts from people across the country honoring her for a job well done.
“It was a very unusual experience for our family having that kind of notoriety,” Patricia said.
Eventually, Edna said, life went back to normal.
Jennie was a member of both the school and church choirs along with 4-H and Girl Scouts.
“Whatever she was involved in, she worked very hard and worked to the extent to help wherever she could,” Edna said.
After high school, Jennie worked as a secretary at Reinke Manufacturing and other places and also worked for six years at a local nursing home.
“It seems like whatever she did, she did well,” Edna said. “She didn’t quit like some kids do. Some kids get tired and quit. She always stuck with it.”
In 2012, Jennie gave a major gift to the village of Deshler, via the Nebraska Community Foundation, to build a new single-level, handicapped-accessible public library. That facility, which opened in June 2016, bears Jennie’s name as the Jennifer Reinke Public Library.
“She has an area in the library especially for spelling,” Edna said. “Kids can come in and study with their books and things. It’s very impressive.”
Jennie has gone back to the National Spelling Bees several times, including this year in honor of the 50th anniversary of her winning. The past several times she has gone, Sandi has gone with her.
“Some things are the same, and some things are very, very different,” Sandi said.
She said Jennie mentioned the biggest difference between the 1967 and the 2017 competitions are the number of competitors and level of competition.
“She said there was 73 when she competed and there was 291 when they started the other day,” Sandi said. “The difficulty, it jumped quite a bit because they really have to whittle those numbers down. With the finals, I think there was one or two words in 16-20 rounds that I knew.”
Jennie is only the second person from Nebraska to win the national title. The first was Virginia Hogan, who won the fifth bee in 1929. No Nebraskan has won since 1967.