Successful event spells s-u-p-p-l-i-e-s for Portland students

I learned lots of things last week at the annual celebrity spelling bee hosted by Schoolhouse Supplies.

Children’s book author and Portland middle-school teacher Bart King is a really funny guy. KPAM radio host Bob Miller looks exactly like his bobblehead. And Portland Monthly Publisher Nicole Vogel, last year’s winner, doesn’t know how to spell “quagmiry.”

Admittedly, I had an advantage over the contestants. As a judge for the second consecutive year (along with Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams), all the answers were in front of me.

The eventual champion was Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s pianist, founder and artistic director.

The real winner, though, was Schoolhouse Supplies, the Portland nonprofit that operates a free store filled with a huge assortment of classroom supplies for public school teachers. The five-employee organization serves all 130 Portland public schools from its 9,300-square-foot warehouse on the campus of Madison High School in Northeast Portland.

The sixth annual spelling bee — which featured celebrities such as Portland Mayor Tom Potter, world Scrabble champion Dave Wiegand and concert violinist Aaron Meyer — broke attendance and fund-raising records in its first year at the Portland Art Museum.

Counting sponsorship dollars and a lively auction led by Portland resident and 2005 International Auctioneer champion Johnna Wells, the organization raised $101,150, double last year’s total.

The crowd of 540 people busted last year’s attendance of 450, when the event was held at the Melody Ballroom. The line was so long entering the museum that the auction started 45 minutes late.

Despite this year’s success, Schoolhouse Supplies Executive Director Nick Viele knew he was taking a big gamble. Moving to the Portland Art Museum tripled costs, putting big pressure on the organization to meet its six-figure fund-raising goal, which constitutes about 30 percent of the 2006 operating budget.

To help meet expectations, fewer, more expensive auction items were on display, including a travel package to Hawaii and a prize dedicated to Northwest sports fanatics that featured an assortment of Nike memorabilia and tickets to several sporting events.

That willingness to take risks has come to characterize Viele’s tenure at Schoolhouse Supplies. In almost two years in the organization’s top spot, he’s reorganized its internal structure and is pursuing co-marketing opportunities to raise its profile. Last year, the company was featured on NBC’s Today Show.

As for the bee, Viele wants to make the lighthearted fund-raiser “the winter event in Portland.”

Unlike many business functions, this one has the added bonus of being educational. Members of the audience could be seen spelling along with the contestants, and one high bidder even won the opportunity to participate on stage with the dozen or so celebrities.

That person — Tim Wallace, Oregon region marketing manager for Wells Fargo and a Schoolhouse Supplies board member — was tripped up by “prestidigitator.”

Poor guy. It’s not like he had a recognizable word, like “quagmiry.”