The Jeopardy! studio monitors fell dark with the passing of longtime host and Canadian icon Alex Trebek to pancreatic cancer at age 80. Apt613 asked Ottawa’s Jeopardy! alumni to reflect on their personal experiences with the legendary quizmaster.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
“You never know what the greater reaction will be when a celebrity dies,” says Zorn Pink, a senior policy analyst and Jeopardy! champion in 2019. “The outpouring of respect for Trebek went far beyond the trivia community. It was incredible to see his impact.”
Casual viewers may be surprised to learn that Trebek deliberately minimized his interactions with contestants (cheating scandals plagued quiz shows in the 1950s) so moments with the host were brief but memorable. “It was a thrill just to be talked to by Trebek,” says Trevor Janes, a software developer who placed second in his 2009 appearance. “He felt very warm and genuine, which made the experience everything I hoped it would be.”
Trebek called Ottawa home during the 1950s and ’60s while attending the University of Ottawa and in the formative years of his career. He assumed the role of Jeopardy! host during its 1984 revival and for the next 36 years—representing an impressive 8,000-plus episodes—rewarded knowledge in its many forms.
“He made it ‘cool’ to be smart,” says Laura Byrne Paquet, a freelance travel writer whose episode aired in 2004. “He really believed that knowledge and education made the world a better place and I really admired him for that.” She recently compiled a list of Ottawa places linked to Trebek.
“He humanized knowledge and made you feel better about the things you knew, rather than bad about the things you didn’t,” says Paul Paquet, founder of the Ottawa Trivia League, who was in the audience during Byrne Paquet’s appearance.
In her book, Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!, author Claire McNear said Trebek “always insisted on being introduced as the host and not the star, because he said the contestants were the stars.” Ottawa’s Jeopardy! alumni agree.
“Everything was about the contestants and audience,” says Frédérique Delaprée, a public servant and two-time Jeopardy! champion in 2014. “When he told a joke, his goal was to make you laugh, not to say ‘look how funny I am.’”
“He made us feel like what we were doing mattered,” says Myfanwy Davies, a retired china shop manager and volunteer who fulfilled her Jeopardy! dream in 2014 after 16 years of applying. “He made time for each contestant and in those moments it’s about them, their life, and what they are capable of.”
“He was encouraging,” says Megan McLeod, general manager at the ByTowne Cinema, recounting her 2019 appearance. “I was so nervous that I totally blanked after ringing in [to answer] and Trebek looked at me like ‘come on Megan, I know you know this,’ which was so great.”
Occasionally, Trebek playfully teased contestants. Pink laughs about his moment in the host’s crosshairs. “Everybody got the final question wrong on the night I won, so I didn’t finish with very much money. The next night Trebek opened the show by commenting on my score: ‘Our champion usually returns with a bit more winnings, but let’s see what he can do tonight.’”
Ryan Mill, a public servant who placed second in his 2016 appearance, remembers Trebek’s staunch kinship to his alma mater. “Trebek popped out before our game and asked, ‘Which one of you is from Ottawa?’ I replied, ‘That’s me.’ He said ‘Carleton University or uOttawa?’ I said, ‘Carleton.’ He jokingly said ‘ugh’ and pretended to spit on the ground. He had a lively sense of humour. He actually spoke at length about how much he loves Ottawa and considers it to be his hometown.”
The carillion on Parliament Hill plays the Jeopardy! theme as a touching tribute to Trebek on the day after his passing. Source: Bill Belsey (YouTube).
The whimsical banter peaked during commercial breaks when Trebek would shift his focus to the audience. “He seemed very happy to be there as an entertainer, to banter, take questions, and tell jokes,” says Janes.
“One of the clues in my game had been about exercise routines,” says Bob Kennedy, a senior linguistics lecturer at the University of California at Santa Barbara and two-time Jeopardy! champion in 2010. “As we headed into the break, Trebek leaned into the front of his lectern and started doing push-ups.”
Underneath the tailored suits was a hardened body of knowledge. “He seemed to know so much,” says Janes. “If a contestant answered incorrectly, he would say ‘I’m sorry, but you were probably thinking of this.’ You could tell he knew the answer and the information beyond it.”
“During my game, Trebek caught a wrong answer,” says Mill. “A contestant rang in and Trebek, looking at his sheet, said ‘That’s wrong.’ Paused and then said, ‘Wait, I think they’re right.’ The judges later confirmed the sheet was wrong. It was pretty remarkable that he corrected it mid-game, on a math question of all things.”
Trebek’s self-assurance was palpable. In 2013, an unscientific poll published in Reader’s Digest placed Trebek eighth on the list of 100 most trusted Americans.
“His personality was an accumulation of knowledge and experience,” says Davies. “People thought of him as a straight shooter, much like Walter Cronkite, well-respected because he dealt in facts, knowledge, and truth.”
“He was an impartial arbiter of right and wrong that we let into our living room five days a week for 36 years,” says Mill. “He did it with a quiet confidence and flair that resonated with people.”
“He always had the answer and that is a very reassuring thing,” says Pink. “He was a weighty intellectual and reliable week after week.”
“People need to get over the whole beard thing,” says McLeod. “He hosted longer without facial hair than he did with. My peak Jeopardy!-watching years were from 1984 to 1997, that’s how I remember him.”
“I never liked the beard, but all the fuss about the moustache was hilarious,” says Davies.
“I have to go with the 1984 look, the big curly hair,” says Byrne Paquet.
“He aged like a fine wine. I remember seeing him in the studio and thinking I hope I look as good at 70 years old as he did,” says Kennedy.
The final Trebek-hosted shows will air from January 4–8, 2021. The studio has not named a permanent replacement host, but says the first in “a series of interim guest hosts from within the Jeopardy! family” will be recently-crowned “Greatest of All Time” contestant Ken Jennings. Much like Trebek, the G.O.A.T holds a reverence for Ottawa, calling it a “fantastic city.”
Trebek leaves behind a legacy of truth, knowledge, humility—and for contestants, a personal photo. The fortunate few who stood on the Trebek-era Jeopardy! stage know those memories are precious and worth more than any amount of prize money.
Alex Trebek, University of Ottawa alumnus and longtime host of Jeopardy!, passed away from pancreatic cancer on November 8, 2020. RIP.