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Mattie Lou Cato


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NORCROSS: Mattie Lou Cato, 73, won national spelling bee in 1947


Mattie Lou Pollard Cato was Georgia's wunderkind of 1947.

The press covered her every move. She appeared on television and was interviewed on radio. She traveled in motorcades led by state troopers. The governor sought her autograph. She was crowned Queen Bee.

All this befell the 14-year-old, educated in a one-room schoolhouse, who became Georgia's first national spelling bee champion.

Six million grammar school students competed in spelling bees that year. At the finals in Washington, Mattie Lou Pollard of Sunnyside school in Upson County outspelled 34 competitors to win the national title.

Her winning word was "chlorophyll."

"We have a lot of words now that we didn't have then," said her husband, Don Cato of Norcross. "The one she got was a new word. No one knew what chlorophyll was."

Mrs. Cato, 73, of Norcross, formerly of Stockbridge, died of bladder cancer Jan. 10 at Embracing Hospice Care. The body was donated to Emory University School of Medicine. Memorial service plans will be announced.

Mrs. Cato had been Georgia's spelling bee champion in 1946 and placed seventh in the national spelling bee. She was the state champion again in 1947, then won the national title after three hours of spelling 52 words correctly. Her prize was $500 and a trip to New York City. Georgia has had only one national spelling bee champion since, when Colquitt Dean tied for the title in 1950.

The Atlanta Journal sponsored the state spelling bee and covered every day of Mrs. Cato's trip to Washington and New York City. When she stepped from the train upon returning to Georgia, Mrs. Cato was greeted by a four-car motorcade, led by the state highway patrol ready to escort her from Atlanta to Thomaston.

As she neared home, 150 cars with horns honking and filled with cheering neighbors joined the motorcade. At the Upson County Courthouse, 3,000 people, including Gov. M.E. Thompson, waited to greet her.

The governor asked for her autograph to be displayed in the museum at the State Capitol. She received admiring letters from across the country. Journalism dean John Drewry offered to help her get into the University of Georgia.

She chose instead to go to work for the Department of Defense, her husband said. She later joined the National Park Service and retired in 1989.

His wife wouldn't correct people's spelling, he said, but did point out spelling mistakes in print. Her teacher impressed upon her students the importance of being able to spell, her husband said, and she imparted that to her children.

"I'm a very good speller myself," said her daughter, Sharon "Sherry" Triebert of Norcross. "I think I inherited it."

Mrs. Cato took pleasure in housekeeping and cooking. Her husband, an accomplished fiddler, taught her to play guitar. She would sometimes accompany him, but she enjoyed line dancing and square dancing more and indulged in mind-expanding activities at every opportunity.

"About five years ago, I bought her a computer. She had had no exposure to computers before, and she loved it," her daughter said. "She loved learning to use it too much. It was always breaking because she would try to download all kinds of things and would change the settings."

Other survivors include a son, Steven Cato of Ooltewah, Tenn.; a sister, Mondez Nixon of Roberta; three grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

© 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 19, 2006
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