Tag Archives: Mr. Congeniality

An extraordinary grasp of geography

Luke Hellum, who advanced to the top 10 in National Geographic's National Geography Bee in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Erica Bailin.

This is a story about an extraordinary student. But it’s also a story about an extraordinary teacher, and that teacher’s extraordinarily supportive sister.

I came across it because the sister sent me an email. Alison Bailin, who is a senior account executive at HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, frequently sends me tips on stories. She’s one of my trusted “go to” people, who understands our publication and doesn’t waste my time with story ideas that aren’t a  good fit. She also apparently understands my crazy work schedule (and shares it, I think, because we are often communicating at very odd times of the day or night).

Alison first contacted me on Monday at about 6:30pm.  She was facilitating an email introduction to her sister, Erica Bailin, who was at that very moment on her way to Washington, D.C. with one of her students.

“He is the statewide winner of the Geography Bee and will represent Arizona this week at the national contest!” she wrote. “To me, it is a great story.”

About 24 hours later, I got an email from Erica. “My student, Luke Hellum, is in the top 10 finalists for National Geographic’s National Geography Bee,” she wrote. “We have been documenting it. How would you like the photos and explanations shared with you?”

I told her what Alison already knows — that she could reach me virtually 24/7 on my email.

I asked Erica for some background on Luke and learned that he is 13 and an eighth grader who attends the Digital Learning Center for the Gifted at Sunrise Middle School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Erica told me that she was in Washington, D.C. to support Luke along with Luke’s father (Eric), mother (Jen) and brother (Noah).

Finalists board. Photo courtesy of Erica Bailin.

“After winning at the school level, Luke went on to the state competition, and won,” Erica wrote. “This qualified him for nationals. Today, in Washington D.C., the preliminary rounds took place. The competition started this morning with 54 contestants, and ended with the top 10 finalists, with Luke Hellum among the victors of the day. He now moves on to the championship round hosted by Alec Trebek. There was a media storm here today that he went through that is really quite impressive.”

At about 7pm Wednesday, I got another message from Erica:

“Here is Luke’s interview by National Geographic. His ‘If I ruled world for a day…’ response is pretty incredible and will give you a better look into the mind of this brilliant young man.”

And more from Erica’s message today:

“Alex Trebek called Luke ‘Mr. Congeniality.’ The former first lady and current Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, read questions to the contestants via a live feed. After the second round, Alex Trebek introduced the contestants and spoke with each one. Luke referred to the Nat Geo bee staff as ‘classy’ and NatGeoLive tweeted, ‘Luke Hellum from Arizona just called Nat Geo staff  classy. Thank you, sir!’

At 8:25pm Wednesday (11:25pm in Washington, D.C.!) I got one more message from Erica.

“Luke finished seventh out of 5.3 million students and 54 that came to nationals,” she said. “We appreciate your interest in this AMAZING child.”

I look forward to learning more about the whole experience from Luke and his AMAZING teacher.

Luke Hellum as he appeared on the big screen monitor during the competition Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Erica Bailin.

Here’s another video. This one was made by Luke’s teacher, Erica Bailin: