Never try to stump a geography champion

Saturday, June 23, 2001


Should 14-year-old Kyle Haddad-Fonda of Bellevue pay a visit to the Oval Office, he'd be in trouble:

President Bush might order him to stick around.

Kyle is a geography genius. A guru of terra firma. The young man is so familiar with almost every city, country, river, archipelago, mountain, isthmus, crater -- you name it -- that even Rand McNally is hearing his footsteps -- sneaker squeaks, to be precise.

George Dubya could certainly use the teen's help.

Bush has been suffering from a slight case of geoblunder-itis.

The president once confused Slovenia -- a place he visited -- with Slovakia. (Hey, even I admit those --enia, -akia and --stan countries are brain bruisers.)

But the president also suggested that Europe ought to have "more countries." And, not to be outdone, he called Africa, well, "a nation."

"Dubya did say that," sighed Kyle, who could have told our chief of state about nations and continents.

As it turns out, Kyle has been poring over Africa lately -- and it shows.

He posed a question. "Did you know that most of Algeria's industry is concentrated in the Mitidja Plain?"

Ummm ... yeah ... I knew that! Miti-didya-say-what?

But I refuse to be shown up by a 14-year-old. I hurl a fastball question, high and inside:

Asia Minor consists of which count- ...

"Turkey," Kyle blurts correctly.

Note to self: Don't let ego be napalmed by the 2001 champ of the National Geographic Bee.

Kyle has held that title since May. He beat out 54 other state and territory winners -- and more than 5 million regional competitors -- for a $25,000 college scholarship.

Now, he is training for the International Geographic Olympiad in Vancouver, B.C., in early August. He is the U.S. team's captain.

When I checked on Kyle yesterday, I wanted to see how his preparations were going (good) and wondered if I could confound him with a doozy of a question (keep reading).

As we spoke, I realized Kyle represents much of what is good about today's youths; many of our young folks are accomplished but at times their deeds are overshadowed by the actions of bad kids.

Kyle gets top marks at the Evergreen School in Shoreline. Besides being a geography whiz, he swims competitively -- the breaststroke -- runs cross country and track and enjoys soccer. He also plays the harp.

Kyle is a fount of dry wit. I asked what grade he was in and he replied, "I am free of the eighth grade as of last Wednesday."

When I asked if he was related to the famous Fondas -- like no one has asked that before -- he chuckled and said truthfully: "Jane Fonda and I are 17th cousins -- a long way off, but, hey, we can claim we are related."

Kyle's excellent adventure in geography began early.

At 2, he played with a wooden puzzle of the United States. At 3, he graduated from states to capitals.

Soon thereafter, he was drawing and memorizing the flags of countries.

When he was 6, Kyle and his parents were watching a televised broadcast of the Geography Bee. That's when Kyle turned to them, and said: "I want to do this."

But he had to wait. The bee is for kids in grades four through eight. Kyle itched to get to fourth grade.

In his first foray, he won his school's geography competition, and that same year he breezed to third place in the state. Suddenly, older students, many of whom were twice Kyle's size, were looking over their shoulders: A new kid had arrived in the Geography Bee hive.

In fifth grade, Kyle placed second in Washington. From grades six through eight, he dusted everyone in the state. This year -- his last of eligibility -- he won the nation's top prize.

Kyle's mom, Laura Haddad, is a social worker. His dad, Rod Fonda, is a Seattle attorney. Both call their only child "a blessing."

Kyle's gift has helped others. Last year, he helped a Kent man win $500,000 on the ABC game show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." As the youngest "lifeline" for a big winner, Kyle correctly identified New Orleans as a sinking, below-sea-level U.S. city.

His success stems from discipline and hard work. He has made more than 40 maps and put them up on walls at home. Near his bed hangs a map -- one of the last things he sees before falling asleep. He fills binders with country facts and figures and has mom and dad grill him.

But Kyle can't know it all ... can he? I go to my Stump-the-Kid file:

Which city lies along the Vistula River?

"Warsaw," Kyle shoots back.

Which lake is the deepest in the worl- ...

"Baikal, in Russia, is the deepest," Kyle cuts in. Then he expounds: "That's followed by Lake Tanganyika, which is bordered by Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia and ..."

Wow. He's the real deal.

What's the phone number to the White House?

I've just found Dubya a special counsel for geographic affairs. But only for the summer. The kid's got to go to high school in the fall.

P-I columnist Robert L. Jamieson can be reached at 206-448-8125 or

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