I am mourning Alex Trebek, along with the rest of the Jeopardy community, and everyone else. I mourn him in a special way, as I was a Jeopardy contestant. Along with a University of Toronto prof whom I contacted after he competed, I must be at most among the two or three contestants in Toronto.
I met Trebek twice. The first in a contestant search in Toronto and then on the actual program in Hollywood. I can’t claim a personal relationship, developed over many games, like all-time winner Ken Jennings. Yet he was very friendly, affable, charismatic in a quiet way, a true celebrity but very humble. He focused on you when it was your turn and meant it. It’s hard to believe he is gone. It was once said that JFK had the quality of sprezzatura, first appearing in Baldassare Castiglione‘s 1528 The Book of the Courtier, where it is as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” Trebek had that quality, as did JFK.
People often ask me to tell my Jeopardy story and it went like this:
When Trivial Pursuit first came out, I participated in massive family games as I was courting my soon to be spouse and kid’s mom. I realized I knew a lot of trivia, without cultivating the knowledge. I knew I had an unusually retentive memory, which allowed me to learn other languages more easily than most. I love history and remember the dates and times.
Then, when we ultimately moved to Toronto, our baby son, suffering from colic, would cry out at exactly the time Jeopardy was broadcast. We started to watch; my only previous connection with it was at Bennington College, where Sam Schulman was the undisputed champion and I thought I could never keep up with him. Soon, Nancy, my then spouse, said, “You are good at this, you ought to be a contestant.” With some research, I discovered that anyone could take the test, which was scheduled fairly often in Los Angeles. I contemplated using airline points to do just that.
But lo and behold, remarkably enough, there was a contestant search in Toronto! It was part of a radio promotion – be the sixth caller and you can become a Jeopardy contestant. It was not designed to find the best contestants. I called the station’s marketing director and she put me on a waiting list and then said they needed contestants and to show up at the Hilton ballroom. There were about 500 people there; it was much like a university final exam. The test was the hardest I’d ever taken. . About 50 questions in 13 minutes. Everyone including me grumbled about how they certainly failed. The show’s producers left the room to score the exams and then Alex came out. Somehow, it’s natural to call him Alex.
He took a familiar position at the podium, gave a little pleasant talk, and then took questions. He was exactly as he was on the show; affable, warm, nice but not too familiar. Impeccably dressed. One of the questions of course was ‘Do you know more information as a result of hearing all those questions?’ “Not really,” he said. “I like hearing about it though.” He left the producers came out and called out five names.
And incredibly, amazingly, I was one of them.
As the crowd moved out of the ballroom, I went the other way to the front, swimming against the sea of people who were not selected. I always consider being on Jeopardy my finest academic achievement, as then 15,000 people applied, and approximately 400 were selected. More selective than Harvard or Yale or the schools I attended, Bennington, the University of Chicago and Columbia University. I felt almost guilty seeing all those disappointed people moving oppositely from me.
We alleged brainiacs then wrote a mini bio and stood up and talked about something interesting that happened to us, as if they wanted to make sure you enough personality to be on national TV. Mine was about watching Nixon’s resignation speech with both Woodward and Bernstein in a small editor’s office in the Washington Post newsroom. Later, on the show that was what Alex asked me about.
Everyone asks me if I won etc. but I came in second, off a few hundred dollars from the winner, having bet it all on Final Jeopardy. The question was: “Who was the last presidential candidate to run against two presidents and lose?”
Most people would think of Illinois favourite son, Adlai Stevenson, liberal hero of my parents’ generation, who ran against Ike twice and lost in 1952 and 1956. Same president. I looked back on elections, realizing I knew who lost in most of the 20th century and particularly in 1948, the famous ‘Dewey Beats Truman’ election in which the right-wing Chicago Tribune published the incorrect result and later ‘Give ‘em Hell Harry’ was photographed holding up the front page and smilingly devilishly.
It has lived on in journalism history. In fact the Post would not release its front page saying ‘Nixon Resigns’ until Tricky Dick actually uttered the words, “I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the nation would require.” Some said he might surround the White House with tanks and hold on for dear life, like the present occupant, but he was more of mensch than that.
I knew it had been Willkie who had lost to FDR in 1940 in the election that featured the first (and now last by law) president to run for and win a third term, a big controversy then. I racked my brain that in 1944, it had to be Dewey, the New York governor and relentless mob prosecutor and guessed Dewey even though you are advised not to do that if you really don’t know the answer. He was also called ‘the little man on the wedding cake,” whose refusal to shave his moustache may have cost him the election. I won but it wasn’t enough. I had the sad duty to call my spouse and say I would not be bringing home the down payment on a house for our kids.
Alex, during the practice session, was as he always is, warm, affable and friendly but not too close. It was of course a blast to see it close up, as a contestant and an observer. Yes, he had that quality of sprezziatura, performing a plethora of tasks while on national television. In addition, his presumed boss and show founder Merv Griffin was in attendance that day so I observed him too. One of the reasons Trebek’s absence will be felt so greatly is that in 30 years and more than 6, 829 episodes hosting Jeopardy what you saw was what you got. The same warm friendly man. In addition, his brave battle in fighting pancreatic cancer somewhat publicly – after suffering two heart attacks and surviving a major auto accident – truly made him a hero. He also was a serious philanthropist. At a time when the nation needed some one to look up to — an example of courage, honesty and positive values, Trebek provided it. He will be missed. I was grateful to have been in his presence and watch him in action. My condolences to his family.