When most eighth-graders were preparing for or celebrating graduation in May, Ram Koganti was in Washington, D.C., competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
It literally was seventh months ago, but not to Koganti.
"It seems like forever. I've been so busy lately. I have high school to worry about," the Ottawa resident said while on a study break from finals.
In May, Koganti was in his final year attending Wallace Grade School northwest of Ottawa. His advancement to the national bee began in February, when he took first place at the La Salle County Spelling Bee. One month later, he captured the Peoria Journal Star Grand Final Spelling Bee. The latter win earned him a spot in the national bee.
To be a top competitive speller, one has to study every day. But since the national bee is open only to middle school students, the 14-year-old Koganti no longer has to study spelling.
"It frees time up to do other things," he said.
A freshman at Ottawa Township High School, Koganti is in the Chess Club and plans to play tennis in the spring.
"High school is fine. I'm enjoying it," he said. "It was a big change the first couple of days, but hopefully you get used to it."
Koganti may not think much about the spelling bee, but it's worth taking a look back.
For a couple of years, he aspired to win the county bee, and finally did so Feb. 16, correctly spelling "sturgeon" and narrowly beating Owen Stoneking, of Waltham Elementary School in Utica.
The Peoria bee, exactly one month later, was more rigorous. After 31 rounds of competition on a Saturday, Koganti — donning the same "lucky" Navy blue Wallace Class of 2013 T-shirt he wore at the county bee — correctly spelled "outrageous" to finish ahead of runner-up John Offutt, of Mossville Elementary School, just north of Peoria.
"It was actually kind of fun. John and I competed together for a long time, and it was fun to see what kind of words we got," Koganti said in a March 18 Times article.
He was excited to be going to Washington, and so were students and staff at Wallace.
"Ram was a kid everyone in the building liked and respected, and, frankly, it was no surprise he got that far. With his kind of work ethic, you're bound to have that success," said Toby Coates, Wallace principal.
The national bee awaited contestants with a new rule — for the first time, vocabulary was included in the competition. In preliminary vocabulary competition, he incorrectly identified the word "perfidy" as "an instance of betrayal." The correct answer was "a humorous or satirical imitation."
Television cameras awaited Koganti the next day, and he admitted he was a little nervous.
"I went up to the podium and thought, "I'm on national TV. I better not mess this up,' " he recalled.
Koganti didn't. He correctly spelled "vivace" — a word meaning "in a lively or vivacious manner." In the afternoon, he correctly spelled "guariba," the Latin term for a brown howler monkey (also the name of a city in Brazil).
He also correctly answered another vocabulary question by completing the question: "If a plant is described as tubulifloral, it:" which he did with "... has hollow, elongated flowers."
Back at Wallace, televised competition could not be aired. Koganti's mother, Usha, texted Coates and reported her son's progress. The principal updated results through the school's all-call system.
As well as Koganti did on the second day of competition, he did not make it to the next day's final round.
"Ram didn't miss a single word onstage. But when they factored in the vocabulary, he didn't advance," Coates said.
Koganti was not disappointed in the outcome.
"I always have been glad to get where I am. It would've been nice, but I don't need that," he said. "I was pretty driven, but I'd rather look back on it with a happy feeling than be disappointed."
The national bee may be far from Koganti's mind, but he will not forget the support he received.
"I'm thankful for all the people of Ottawa and Wallace who really helped. I'd like to thank them for that," he said.
Son of Ramesh and Usha, a family practitioner, Ram is thinking of becoming an oncologist, which involves diagnosing cancer. He has been accepted at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, and expects to go there next year. Ram's brother, Vivek, graduated from IMSA last year and now attends the University of Illinois.
High school and oncology are a long way from spelling bees, but Koganti is grateful for the experience.
"It helped me become a better speller, but it was a good start to learning how to study and apply yourself. It was good motivation," he said.
Fortunate to find Ram — and his story
There are plenty of ways to find a good newspaper story.
Sometimes it's discovered through research and digging. It can land on a reporter's lap during a meeting. Or one can get a little lucky.
Last March, I attended the Class 3A-4A boys basketball state finals at Carver Arena in Peoria. The tournament ended at about 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and rather than drive back to La Salle County, I reserved a motel room and spent the night in nearby Morton.
The following morning, I bought a copy of the Peoria Journal Star — something I do no more than twice a year — with the intent of checking coverage of the tournament I'd watched the previous day. While looking in the news section, I came across the headline "Ottawa eighth-grader Ram Koganti is Grand Final Bee champion."
Shortly after driving back home, I went into the office and searched for the Koganti family's phone number. After a couple of calls I was speaking to Ram, who politely recounted his big day winning the Journal Star spelling bee.
"I was numb at first, then it dawned on me later. I couldn't believe I did it," he said that Sunday morning. Koganti gave me enough information to warrant a front-page story in the following day's Times.
What the Wallace Grade School student did was become the best speller among thousands of students in counties surrounding Peoria. Exactly one month earlier, he had won the La Salle County Spelling Bee in Ottawa. And about two months later, he celebrated his junior high graduation by competing at the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.
Had I not bought the paper that day, would The Times be able to tell Koganti's story so soon? I don't know; Sunday is not a normal business day, and word might not have reached us in time for Monday's edition.
Yet I do know two things: It's been fun interviewing Koganti, and I never will leave Peoria without picking up a newspaper.