Breakfast of Champions

He scaled an intellectual Everest at age twelve. What's he like at sixteen? Meet George Thampy.

 Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture? You laughing now?
--Alec Baldwin, as real estate hotshot "Blake" in Glengarry Glen Ross

In the summer of 1999, at Washington, D.C.'s Grand Hyatt Hotel, it was never about steak knives for young George Thampy. It was, to paraphrase Alec Baldwin's Blake, about closing.

Jennifer Silverberg
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition

"ABC. A, Always; B, Be; C, Closing. Always be closing."

To George Thampy, age eleven, this meant nothing short of winning the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, icing older competitors by acing words he may never use in casual conversation. Like Blake, Thampy, as captured in last year's Academy Award-nominated documentary film Spellbound, knew exactly what his personal three-step formula for success was, and between signing autographs for admiring rival competitors, he was more than happy to spell it out.

"One: Trust and believe in Jesus," a squeaky-voiced Thampy pronounces, jabbing his pen professorially at the camera with each syllable.

"Two: Honor your parents."

"And three: Hard work."

George Thampy was supposed to have been one of the eight young "stars" of Spellbound, but he was relegated to secondary billing when his parents forbade the filmmakers access to their Maryland Heights home. Screen time, though, is what you make of it, and Thampy, in approximately three minutes, manages to lodge himself firmly in the moviegoer's craw. Introduced via an ESPN clip in which a commentator taps him as a favorite to win -- mispronouncing his name Thumpy -- he steals the scene.

Unlike most eleven-year-olds, Thampy doesn't do this by being cute. Quite the opposite, in fact. When he's not speaking -- with a pronounced impediment that turns his r's into w's -- or signing autographs, he sits with his back to the camera as his father denounces the United States as a "bankrupt society" in need of "godly values." In all instances, the boy's meticulous navy-blue suit and detached air set him distinctly apart from his rivals. The kid's got gravitas, and the filmmakers -- and his fellow spellers -- know it.

In just three minutes, intentionally or otherwise, George Thampy comes across as equal parts unusual, brilliant, annoying, shy, cocky and fascinating. Unscripted, Thampy carves out the same sort of rare, tiny humdinger role for himself as Glengarry's Alec Baldwin, whose lone, brass-balls-on-the-table scene hijacks the machismo-drenched film from a heavyweight cast that includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris.

Thampy couldn't close on that June day in D.C. He finished tied for third out of 249 national finalists, stumped on the archaic term kirtle (a type of garment; he spelled it "c-u-r-t-l-e"). In the previous year's competition, Thampy had finished fourth. But in 2000, at age twelve, Thampy skipped the steak knives and snagged the Eldorado, thus successfully ending a quest for the National Spelling Bee title that his parents say began somewhere in the vicinity of age five.

An instant celebrity, young Thampy got his proverbial fifteen minutes, hitting the Today Show, Good Morning America and the pitcher's mound at Busch Stadium, where he threw out a ceremonial first pitch and got to meet Mark McGwire.

And then this past spring brought Spellbound's wide release. Suddenly the past was present for George Thampy. In a glowing review of the film, Riverfront Times critic Luke Y. Thompson singled out the St. Louisan's brief appearance, noting that the minimalist role was "just as well: With his obnoxious evangelical Christian proselytizing," Thompson wrote, "he'd make for an annoying protagonist."

George's father was incensed and told Thompson so in an e-mail: "It is a shame that people such as you are allowed to write articles in newspapers." A letter to the Riverfront Times from the principal of the school Thampy now attends was likewise withering. "Mr. Thompson chose to refer to George as 'obnoxious' and 'annoying,' although if Mr. Thompson had the privilege of knowing George he would soon learn that George is the very antithesis of those two adjectives," wrote Westminster Christian Academy principal James Drexler.

"I wonder, though, who is truly obnoxious," Drexler concluded, "one who takes a consistent stand for his faith, or an adult who attacks a fifteen-year-old for his beliefs!"

And so St. Louisans were exposed to a funhouse-mirror version of George Thampy -- the teenager melded with the pint-sized provocateur on celluloid.

Of the film, George says only that he thought it was "pretty good." But, from the look on his face when he says this, you can tell he's been there, done that and considers Spellbound to have all the significance of a buried time capsule. What he is now -- and what he is going to be -- is what interests him.

Were it not for the simultaneous entrance of his mild-mannered mother, Bina, the George Thampy who strides into the St. Louis County Public Library's Thornhill Branch would be virtually unrecognizable from the spindly Spellbound boy of 1999. Gone is the aloof, Scripture-centered nerd. In his stead is a lanky six-footer with a deepening voice who is as sure of himself as he is about his bedrock Christian beliefs.

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