- [S47] Sevier County, Tennessee and its Heritage, Sevier County Heritage Book Committee, (1994, Don Mills, Inc.), 264.
- [S4] Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee), 10 Apr 2001.
Joseph L. McMahan obituary
- [S106] The Mountain Press, 11 Oct 2014.
Upland Chronicles: Sevier County student competed in 1955 National Spelling Bee
In 1955, Robert E. "Bob" McMahan won the Southern Appalachian Spelling Bee and competed in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., while attending Pleasant View School.
Representing Pleasant View School in Sevierville, sixth grade student Robert Earl McMahan won the Southern Appalachian Spelling Bee sponsored by the Knoxville News Sentinel and went on to compete in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
Defeating 33 other students from Kentucky and Tennessee, the 12-year-old proved a student could learn to spell in a one-room schoolhouse with no indoor plumbing and a single teacher tutoring eight grades.
In 1955, the Sevier County School System was entirely segregated, and Pleasant View School was one of the few places in the county where African-American children were allowed to attend classes – only through the eighth grade. After that, if they wanted to continue their education, they were bused to Knoxville's Austin High School.
Pleasant View was a Rosenwald School. The Rosenwald fellowship was an organization for issuing grants to further the education of African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century.
Robert credited his teacher, Mary Bond McMahan for his success in the spelling bees. Aunt Mary, as she was called by her students, taught by objectives. She delegated to older students the task of helping younger children with their lessons. Her tutelage provided the pupils with a rounded education, including lessons about music and culture.
Robert Earl McMahan, known as Bob, is a son of Odie Lee and Henrietta Callaway McMahan. At the time of his spelling bee success, he and his mother were living with his paternal grandparents, Joseph "Leak" and Dixie Stover McMahan. His mother was working as a housekeeper in Gatlinburg while his father was working in Los Angeles as a brickmason.
Born March 14, 1943, Robert was the youngest of three boys. Like the other boys in the school, he took turns pumping water from the well in the schoolyard and, in cold months, helped start the fire in a coal-burning stove.
There were only 14 students in Pleasant View School, and only two other sixth graders. None of these obstacles prevented Robert from studying hard and learning how to spell well. When Aunt Mary announced that the superintendent of schools had invited African-American students to participate in the county spelling competition, Robert jumped at the chance.
He entered the Sevier County Spelling Bee when he was in the fifth grade, but he did not win the first year. Throughout the following summer and fall, Robert studied hard. Aunt Mary tutored him and provided him with much-needed encouragement.
The next year he won the local contest and went on to compete in the Southern Appalachian Spelling Bee held at WNOX Auditorium in Knoxville – and won. Since the event was sponsored by the newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel covered the contest and made a big deal out of the young black boy who attended a one-room school winning first place.
By the time Robert was scheduled to compete in the National Spelling Bee in the nation's capitol, both the AP and UPI had picked up the story, and newspapers throughout the nation ran articles about him.
Accompanied by his mother and grandparents, as well as Aunt Mary and her husband Fred, Robert left Sevierville early in the morning of Saturday, May 4, and visited with friends in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Raleigh, N.C., before driving north on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. They arrived in Washington late on Sunday night.
On Monday morning, they checked in to the Willard Hotel and went to the spelling bee headquarters to pick up their credentials. When they returned to their hotel, they discovered a newspaper reporter hammering on their door. She interviewed Robert and his teacher and took their pictures.
The next day the Washington Daily News printed the story. A correspondent from the Cincinnati Post read the story and, learning he and Mary were alumni of the same school, sent a story to that newspaper.
On Monday afternoon, the group was given a general tour of Washington, down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing the White House, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Iwo Jima Monument and the Capitol grounds. They continued taking in the sights through Wednesday evening.
The spelling bee opened Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in the Department of Commerce auditorium. Press tables were provided for newspaper reporters traveling with competing students, Washington bureau representatives, and wire service reporters.
Western Union telegraph machines were installed in the anteroom for quick transmission of copy, and typewriters were nearby. Telephones were available in the lobby, and newspaper photographers were on hand everywhere.
There were 62 contestants in the national competition: 42 eighth-graders, 17 seventh-graders, two sixth-graders (Robert and one other) and one fifth-grader. Robert went down at 4:30 p.m. on the word fugue, placing 22nd. The winner was from St. Louis.
After another day of Washington touring, Robert and his companions attended the bee banquet and awards ceremony in the Crystal Ballroom of the Willard Hotel. Robert received a check for $50, as did 19 others in the upper brackets of spellers. Robert's group returned home the following day.
Robert's mother died when he was 16. By that time he had moved to Knoxville, where he attended Beardsley Junior High and Austin High School for one year. He then moved to Inglewood, Calif., to live with his older brother Henry and his wife Lorraine. There, he graduated from Freemont High School.
Robert worked for a year after high school as a distribution clerk for the U.S. Post Office before enlisting in the Navy. After serving three years in the military, Robert enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor's degree.
Foe 25 years he worked for Los Angeles County as a behavioral specialist, counseling young people with violence issues, some of them gang members.
Now 71, Robert resides in San Jacinto, Calif., with his wife Rosemary. From a previous marriage, he has one daughter, Maya, and a grandson Jazreel.
Carroll McMahan is special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.
The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or firstname.lastname@example.org.