KINGSTON, Jamaica: Days after 12-year-old Jody-Anne Maxwell beat out 248 other competitors to become the first non-American to win the esteemed Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., in May 1998, she returned home to Jamaica to a royal welcome that included the reading of a proclamation from Governor-General Sir Howard Cooke during a courtesy call at King’s House.
It was a reception truly befitting a monarch; but if Jody-Anne was the reigning Queen Bee, then the power behind the throne was the high priest of coaches, the Reverend Glen Archer.
The man who became famous for being the maker of spelling champions went on to coach a few more top ten challengers in the international contest, including Kingston College’s Gifton Wright, a crowd favourite, who placed fourth in 2012.
Yet while it was during his forties that Rev. Archer first waved his magic wand and cast a spell on his rivals, his involvement in word tournaments dates back to 1965 when he was a boy of 11 attending Harbour View Primary School.
As title-holder for the parish of St. Andrew in The Gleaner's Children's Own National Spelling Bee Competition, Archer had to settle for sixth place in the national face-off.
Fast forward 21 years to 1986, when, on his coaching debut in the same competition, with a student representing the same parish, Rev. Archer got his first taste of final-round victory courtesy of Karla McNish from Ardenne High School.
The young lady who lifted the trophy was to emerge as the first in a long line of victors from the institution where Rev. Archer had been a teacher of religious knowledge since 1978.
Prior to this, the spelling competition had virtually become the dominion of Vaz and St. Cecelia Preparatory Schools.
Rev. Archer, however, had already started to put together a combination of ingredients towards creating his own recipe for success – a cocktail that he would continue to refine over the years; and with their appetites whetted, his protégés from Ardenne, Jody-Anne Maxwell among them, went on to devour their competitors year after year.
Moreover, in the odd year or two when the school was denied first place, the winning contestants were likely to have been trained by Archer himself, who chalked up a whopping 25 All-island Spelling Bee wins as coach in 29 years of competition.
As the Spelling Archer kept on hitting the bull’s-eye, students from a growing number of schools began signing up to learn from the expert, and his drive combined with their diligence helped Archer to continually strike his target of distinction.
In 1992 when he turned his attention to the annual academic competition for secondary institutions, Schools’ Challenge Quiz, his stock soared even higher, paying substantial dividends when Team Ardenne took home the top prize three times under his tutorship.
When Rev. Archer left Ardenne after more than 20 years to become a training consultant, his title might have changed, but what he brought to the table was the same standard of excellence that had always been his monogram.
While it is the norm for a minister of religion to be identified with a particular church or denomination, the Jamaica Theological Seminary graduate was almost always associated with the educational fraternity, even as he applied Christian principles to his interactions with his students.
Still, having to constantly inspire adolescent pupils to greatness at a time when they are likely to be jaded and increasingly self-assertive would have been no mean task for Rev. Archer, who was known to be a stickler for hard work and discipline – and uncompromisingly so. Yet his actions were always tempered by his commitment to his charges and his desire to see them become their best selves.
For his contribution to the nation in the field of education, Rev. Archer was conferred with the Order of Jamaica and The Gleaner Honour Award, among others.
What is a lesser known fact, though, is his involvement in sports, the high point of which was the Ardenne team's 1991 triumph in two premier schoolboy football competitions, the Manning Cup and the Olivier Shield, under his management.
Along the road to fame, the illustrious coach met with his fair share of detractors who denounced his sometimes unorthodox training techniques for their arduous nature.
There were also those who felt that he was far too combative in his competitiveness.
Unruffled, Archer brushed criticisms aside and kept his focus on his goal of producing what he hoped would be not just winners, but multidimensional human beings who would contribute to society in a meaningful way.
While only time can tell if this will prove to be the case, what is unquestionable is that the level of success that Rev. Archer achieved with his students was more than enough to leave an entire nation spellbound.