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Two Waldo County students head to state GeoBee

By Fran Gonzalez | Mar 07, 2020

Montville — “I didn’t think I would win, exactly,” said Ruben Widmer, a sixth-grade student at Mount View Middle School, after becoming the school’s National Geographic Bee Champion.

In Waldo County, Ruben is one of two students heading to the state competition March 27 at University Maine Farmington, where the top prize is $1,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C., for the national competition. Reilly Newton, a seventh-grade student at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, also qualified.

The contest includes three levels of competition — school, state and national. Schools conduct a GeoBee and name a school champion. The school champion takes an online qualifying test and the 100 top-ranked students in the state compete at the state level. State champions are then invited to compete in the national championship in May.

Stockholm wins it

In an interview with The Republican Journal March 2, Ruben said modestly that the accomplishment is a “fairly large (deal), but not too big. It is not a monumental degree.”

In December 2019, Ruben said, he learned about the competition through a history club he belongs to, headed up by Faith Campbell, social studies teacher and GeoBee coordinator at the school.

According to Campbell, a total of 90 students participated in the Mount View Middle School Geography Bee, either through classes or as members of the history club.

The preliminary round at Mount View consisted of seven geography questions with the 10 students with the highest scores advancing. Ruben said one student answered seven out of seven questions correctly, but decided not to proceed to the final round.

The final round was double-elimination with three questions, where the student having the most correct answers won. Ruben said the competition came down to one question, “What city in Sweden does the climate activist Greta Thunberg live in?”

“I had no idea what city she lived in,” Ruben admitted. In fact, he said, he only knew one Swedish city, and that was Stockholm — so he made an educated guess, and it was correct. The other two students could not answer the question. The second- and third-place winners, according to Campbell, were Ben Richards and Allison Kelley, respectively.

Ruben then took the 70-question online qualifying test to compete at the state level in Farmington.

Growing up, he said, his father would quiz him and his older brother, Isaac, about geography, the continents, and the oceans. The friendly competition between brothers sparked Ruben's interest, which branched out to history as well. “I enjoyed it,” he said.

Mom Kim Widmer said it was hard to drag him away from reading all the informational plaques at the different battlefields they have visited as a family.  “I can spend hours reading the displays,” Ruben said.

Ruben remembers when he was 9, taking two weeks to learn all the U.S. presidents. “I didn’t just look at them and instantly remember them; I had to spend a lot of time to burn it into my memory,” he said.

His mom said she was very proud of him and "glad the school participated in the geography bee. I think it’s a really fun opportunity for kids, and it’s a great school event to have for the first round. It’s always good for anyone to think beyond our location and to learn about other parts of the world.”

His dad, Glen Widmer, wryly noted, “All those years of National Geographic subscriptions have finally paid off,” and added that as a family, they love geography.

'Awesome' competitors

More than 300 students at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast participated in the school competition of the National Geographic GeoBee, with Reilly Newton capturing first place, Rohan Joseph, another seventh-grader, winning second and Ben Allen, also in seventh grade, finishing third.

In a conversation with the Journal March 3 at Troy Howard, Reilly said he was excited about winning the bee. Last year, he wanted to compete, but because of what his dad, Gene Newton, calls a "colossal" mix-up, it never happened.

Gene said Reilly's been into geography since he was 3, when his mom got him a puzzle with all the states and capitals. "It progressed from there," he said.

History is also one of Reilly's interests. "He learned a lot from a video game called 'Civilization,' and he also has one of those ridiculous memories," Gene said.

"At the dinner table, Reilly tells us to challenge him with history and geography questions," his father said.

"He definitely puts time and effort into it," Gene said. "He was disappointed last year that he missed the competition."

Reilly enjoys soccer and takes part in the school's theater group. "Sometimes it's harder to talk in front of people than it is to sing," he said. After completing high school, he is considering attending college in Hawaii to study astronomy, another one of his interests.

"I want to give a shout-out to my friends and competitors, Rohan Joseph and Ben Allen," Reilly said, "You guys are awesome."

The 2020 national champion will receive a $25,000 college scholarship, $1,000 in cash, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and an all-expenses-paid Lindblad expedition to the Galápagos Islands aboard the National Geographic Endeavour ll. Second- and third-place winners receive $10,000 and $5,000 college scholarships, respectively, and a $1,000 cash prize. Seven runners-up will each receive $1,000 in cash.

Mount View Middle School sixth-grader Ruben Widmer will compete in the state GeoBee at the University of Maine Farmington March 27. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Reilly Newton, a seventh-grade student at Troy Howard Middle School, will compete in the state GeoBee at the University of Maine Farmington March 27. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
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