It was in a high school typing class that Eleanor Farmer learned of her special talent that, nearly eight decades later, might qualify her for a Guinness World Record.
Back before Microsoft Word centered words on a page with a few mouse clicks, the practice was to center the typewriter carriage and then backspace once for each two letters. During the lesson, the teacher asked each student to spell her name and backspace to center it on the page.
“My name was Eleanor Cotton. When she came to me and I said N-O, T-T.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Spell your name’
“N-O, T-T, O-C, Space-R’
‘You’re spelling it wrong.’
“I said, ‘that’s very confusing. If I’m backspacing, I need to spell the word backwards.’
“She said, ‘what if you were doing Constitution of the United States?’ I said, ’S-E, T-A, A-T, S-Space, D-E, T-I, N-U, Space, E,H,T, Space, F,O, Space, NOITUTITSNOC.’
“Well, she turned pale. She went over and sat down at her desk and went to the next person. That is how I found out.”
That’s the story Farmer, now 93, told Saturday as she gathered with family members and official witnesses in an activity room at the Heritage Hall nursing home in Leesburg. She had just completed another exercise—correctly spelling backwards 47 words from a list of 50 read aloud by her son, Tim.
She responded at a rapid-fire pace. “T,N,E,D,I,S,E,R, capital P.” “Y,R,A,R,B,I,L.” “M,U,E,S,U,M.”
After 2 minutes and 48 seconds she had completed the list, missing three by spelling the words (correctly) forward rather than backward.
A package documenting Farmer’s achievement, a video recording and witness accounts duly notarized, will be sent to the Guinness Book of World Records in hopes that she will be formerly recognized as the oldest person to spell 40 words backward. There are two similar records on the books: most words spelled backward in 1 minute (36 of 40) and the fastest time to spell 50 words backward (1:22).
It will take about five months to learn whether her feat will qualify for the record book.
Farmer said she never gave much thought to how unusual her skill was and when she was growing up there was no quick path to stardom that YouTube provides today. Perhaps the closest she came was, with her father’s help, seeking to challenge Professor Backwards, a vaudevillian who was a frequent TV talk show guest in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, to a spell off, but nothing came of it.
More recently, she made a show-and-tell appearance to spell backward in front of her grandson’s fourth grade class. And she can expect more spelling challenges from her neighbors at Heritage Hall as word of her special gift spreads. But she might be able to look back on her typing class experience with a bit of extra satisfaction with a world record certificate on the wall.