A Gonzales Community School sixth-grader who had never before entered a county spelling bee and calmly chewed gum throughout the competition captured first place in this year’s Santa Fe County Spelling Bee.

Ashwin Neel — who wasn’t much taller than the trophy he won for his efforts — took home the top prize on Friday after correctly spelling modus operandi.

Neel’s winning ways were distinctive, even by Spelling Bee standards. He clutched the microphone close to his chest while contemplating the spelling, not unlike a little boy pulling a blanket to his chin in anticipation of hearing a scary bedtime story. His jaws worked the gum like a rock grinder. (“I never not not not chew gum,” he explained after the bee ended, insisting that the “not not not” is the correct use of a double negative in that sentence).

He looked directly at the three judges as he rattled off each letter of each word with confidence, occasionally emitting big sighs of relief when he finished with a particularly difficult word.

At the end, when Neel was pronounced the winner, he turned to the audience and conducted sort of a half-bow of acknowledgement. Then he hugged his parents and used his cellphone to call his school principal, Michael Lee, to pass on the good news.

The four-hour-plus bee, which took place at Santa Fe Community College, involved 45 private and public-school students from grades 4 through 8. The spelling bee is a big deal for kids who have a yen for either memorization or etymology. Nationwide, some 11 million kids take part in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The goal is to help students improve their spelling and increase their vocabularies. The majority of the words are provided by Scripps and participating students can access study guides to cram in advance.

But even the best minds for memorization can get thrown when the bee suddenly switches to random words from the dictionary, which is what happened after seven stalwart semi-finalists were still standing after five successive rounds. The bee’s word pronouncer, Meredith Madri, cautioned the remaining seven that it would no longer be a memorization test — and that’s when several of them floundered when it came to words like desiderium, bilberry and tour de force.

When it was all over, Neel said he would have been happy to have placed 20th in the competition.

“I did not study that much,” he said. “Maybe two hours total.”

His mother, Karen Regensberg, attributed his knowledge of words to his love of literature. “He reads a lot,” she said. “I know he’s familiar with a lot of words.”

Raven Callaway-Kidd, a sixth-grader at Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary School, took second place after misspelling spinneret. Akansha Nanda, a sixth-grader at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, was third. All three students will travel to Albuquerque to compete in the New Mexico State Spelling Bee on Saturday, March 24, at Sandia Preparatory School.

The winner of that bee will then take part in the national competition in Washington, D.C. in late spring.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.