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Remembering Alex Trebek - Saying goodbye to a beloved television legend

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I think I had convinced myself that he was going to beat it. No – that he HAD beaten it.

Alex Trebek has been a part of my life for nearly 40 years. He was there when I was a kid, when I was in college, when I was stumbling my way through early adulthood and when I finally more or less grew up. And he was there when I finally realized my dream of appearing on “Jeopardy!” just a hair over two years ago.

It hurts to think about him not being there anymore.

The legendary host of “Jeopardy!” passed away on Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer; he was 80 years old. He leaves behind a decades-long television legacy – a legacy the likes of which we have never seen before and will likely never see again.

His was a calming, steady presence, one that crossed all divides. EVERYONE loved Alex Trebek. It didn’t matter how old you were or what your beliefs were or how much money you had – we all agreed on the excellence of “Jeopardy!” Generations have gathered to watch and shout answers at the screen (was that not how it worked in your house?) and celebrate the joy of knowledge, with Alex serving as our benevolent guide.

It’s funny – one of the first questions that anyone asks you when they learn you appeared on the show is “What’s Alex like?” And the truth is, with very few exceptions, we contestants don’t know him much better than the viewers at home. Honestly, you see practically all our interactions with him; the intros, the first commercial break anecdotes, the post-show congratulations and condolences – that’s pretty much it. But there’s real joy in the smaller moments – the handshake, the posing for pictures, eliciting a chuckle with your story.

Of course, the magnitude of the moment changes the calculus. The entire process of being on the show – the time in the green room, the paperwork, the conversations with producers, even being on the stage for the practice rounds – all feels gauzy and surreal, like a dream. It isn’t until you’re standing on the stage with that ubiquitous music rising and the dulcet tones of Johnny Gilbert announcing the man himself, when he appears from behind the massive clue board as if by magic, that it truly clicks – this is real and this is happening.

You might not realize it, what with the delight so many of us in his mildly disappointed head shakes and occasional tsk-tsking, but the man exuded a sense of genuine empathy. He wanted nothing more than for every contestant to perform to the very best of their ability. He rooted for every one of us, wishing success on us all. One of his many gifts was his ability to recognize that for those of us who reached that stage, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream; in everything he did, he did his best to ensure that that culmination was a joyful one, even in the face of defeat.

There’s a universality to “Jeopardy!” that is tough to fully quantify. So many of us literally grew up with Alex Trebek in our homes five nights a week. He visited us well over 200 times a year for nearly 40 years. The current incarnation of the show has aired over 8,000 episodes – every single one of them hosted by our favorite witty, genial Canadian uncle. He’s practically family – hell, a lot of people probably spent more time with him than they spent with their actual relatives.

A lot of my friends reached out after the news broke, offering sympathies and condolences. The loss hit me harder than I might have guessed; like I said, I think I had deluded myself into thinking he was going to be OK. In a time of chaos and confusion, there was something wonderful about that reliable moment of shared syndicated consistency. No matter what was happening in your life or in the world, you knew that Alex Trebek would be there.

And now he won’t be.

“Jeopardy!” will go on. It’s a phenomenal show with a devoted following; its generational impact is considerable and ongoing. And Alex continued working right up until the end, taping his last shows just a couple of weeks ago; word is that these episodes will take us to Christmas. But someday, we will see episodes hosted by someone other than Alex Trebek. It isn’t going to be the same. It can’t be. But the show will march on, carrying with it his memory.

I feel tremendously lucky to have met you, Mr. Trebek, if only for a moment. It was a privilege and an honor. You will be missed by millions. Fare thee well.

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Of course, I’m far from alone in mourning the loss of such a beloved figure.

The three participants in the Greatest of All-Time tournament all took to Twitter in the aftermath of the news to share their feelings. Here’s some of what the GOATs had to say.

Ken Jennings:

“Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did. He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him.”

James Holzhauer:

“It was one of the great privileges of my life to spend time with this courageous man while he fought the battle of his life. You will never be replaced in our hearts, Alex.”

Brad Rutter:

“Just gutted. There will never be another. RIP, Alex, and thank you so much for everything.”

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For those who are unaware, there is a robust community of “Jeopardy!” alumni on various social media platforms. I reached out to the members of the Jeopardy! Contestants Facebook group to ask for some reminiscences about Alex Trebek. Here are a few of their responses.

Monica Gruber:

“The thing I enjoyed the most about him was that he seemed a bit flirtatious with me, and I was giving it right back. My conversation with him after the first commercial break was about how I had been on a game show in Ecuador years before. He asked questions and enjoyed the story; by sheer coincidence, the middle contestant's story was also about Ecuador and Alex asked him if he saw me there. During the next commercial break, he walked past me and as he did, he very softly uttered the name of the Ecuadorian game show (Busque su Marca) and it made me giggle, and he chuckled too as he kept walking. I felt like we'd just shared a secret.

“During the closing credits conversation, since I came in second and my time with him was running out, I took the opportunity to just try to lead as much of it as I could, LOL. I think he had a way of establishing a connection with every contestant, and I enjoyed the one I had with him.”

Kit Hope:

“I spent many years working for the American Red Cross in Service to the Armed Forces. The work took me all over the globe but the most isolated was the US Naval Support Facility on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. I’d been lucky enough to catch some USO shows over the years - Carol King in Saudi Arabia comes to mind. But the best ever was when Alex Trebek and some of the contestant wranglers came to Diego Garcia on a contestant search. They were there for a day or two and we had a barbecue at the Officers Club.

“As it happened, I was the only person on the island to pass the test. Some months later, I rotated back to the States but I sent my new contact info to Jeopardy. I had a good feeling that I’d be called, if only so that Alex could say on national television that he went to Diego Garcia. And it came to pass. The military search contestants had airfare and hotel paid for which was nice. Sadly, I came in third and won a Rug Doctor (which was stolen in a later move; the insurance paid for my first computer). A couple of years after that (when I was working at Nellis AFB in Nevada), I got tickets to a taping in Las Vegas (I think it may have been the international shows) and I tracked down Glenn and asked if he’d been back to Diego Garcia lately. He remembered and I think I can safely say that I am still the only contestant from the British Indian Ocean Territory.”

Heidi Eichler:

“I was on crutches so for taping I was on a chair that was bolted to the floor. Alex said not to worry he’d come to us for the post show chat since I wasn’t going anywhere!”

Bridget Derbyshire:

“When Alex did his little interview with me, we talked about how I played Jeopardy with my students. He then attempted to teach me to say “Ooooh sorry” like him. We were both laughing! That little bit ended up on the 4000th episode and was the clip shown when he was nominated for a daytime Emmy the following year.”

Jody Carlson:

“I remember two things from my tape day: (1) Alex said that in his 29 years of hosting the show (or however long it had been in December 2012), I was the first person he’d ever met who had been on a cattle drive; and (2) when they took the picture of me and Alex, he was saying things under his breath and I was cracking up.”

Dave Ellis:

“His memory of random contestants was staggering. I didn’t make the semifinals in my appearance in the 1992 college tournament, but he asked about the hockey team at Michigan State during the closing credits. As a thank you I sent him an autographed MSU hockey hat, to which he sent a personal thank you letter.

“Two years later, my younger sister made the college tournament. We asked if he would pose for a picture with both of us, and he not only obliged but did it on the set with the official photographer. He saw my MSU hockey jersey and immediately remarked “You sent me the hat.” Never would have expected him to remember that.”

Josh Woo:

“He came to visit us kids in the green room prior to the taping in his street clothes. As he grabs a banana and leaves, a kid calls out to him, “Be in a suit!”

“Alex turns right around, marches back into the room, holding the banana like a gun, and shouts, “WHO SAID, ‘BE IN A SUIT’?!”

“We all point to the culprit. Alex walks over to him and feigns pistol-whipping him with said banana, and leaves.”

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 November 2020 04:46

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