Alex Trebek and Ken Peterson on Jeopardy! | Provided photo
By Ken Peterson
I never got to meet Walter Cronkite or Fred Rogers but I felt I knew them. Their steadiness, decency and compassion came through clearly over their long television careers. Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” during his 19-year tenure as anchor of the CBS Evening News during the tumultuous 1960s and ‘70s; Rogers was the embodiment of kindness and caring for children for three decades in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
From all accounts, Alex Trebek was a kindred spirit, both on the air and off. I was fortunate to meet him — briefly — and get a small measure of the man. It’s a memory I cherish.
It happened when I qualified as a Jeopardy! contestant in 1989 and played well enough to become a one-day Jeopardy! champion.
It almost didn’t happen.
I’d gone down to Los Angeles more than a year earlier for a contestant search, which was then offered in person at the KTLA-TV studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where the show was taped. Of the 61 Jeopardy! aspirants, only six of us passed the 50-word trivia test to make the first cut. They said they’d call us in the next few months if they wanted us on the show.
More than a year later — after I’d resigned myself to never getting a callback — they phoned out of the blue and gave me a taping date the following month. I’d be part of Alex Trebek’s sixth season as Jeopardy! host.
I wound up in the contestant pool with one of the game’s early legends: New York City transit cop Frank Spangenberg, who finished his five-day championship run with me in the studio, but fortunately not competing against him. He was the first player ever to win more than $100,000. (In the pre-Ken Jennings days, they retired champions after five wins, and only let them keep $75,000 in prize money; the rest went to charity. Jeopardy! and Double Jeopardy! clues were valued at half what they are today.)
We didn’t get to socialize with Alex and announcer Johnny Gilbert until we made it onto the game stage, so we watched at a distance as they bantered with the audience. We didn’t get to meet them, nor could we wave to friends and family in the audience. We couldn’t go anywhere on our own, not even to the bathroom. These are all security precautions prompted by the quiz show scandals of the ‘50s so there’d be no chance of anyone feeding us inside information or answers.
When my turn came, the Jeopardy! theme music played and Gilbert announced: “Now entering our studio are today’s contestants. A freelance writer from Pacific Grove, California, Ken Peterson….”
Alex was all business as the game progressed, doing what he does so well: keeping the game interesting, and drawing out short anecdotes from the players during the first break. I was laser-focused on the mechanics of play — in the zone the way a pro athlete can be at Wimbledon or in an NBA final.
Despite ebbs and flows that had me in third place at the start of Double Jeopardy!, I went into Final Jeopardy! with a lead over returning champ John Collier, $10,200 to $8,500. When the category came up Holidays and Observances, I gambled that I’d know the answer, figuring John would do the same.
The answer came up: “Paasfeest is the Dutch name for this holiday.” I knew I was a winner. I knew I was a big winner.
After my two competitors revealed their correct responses, my answer also came up “What is Easter?” Then Alex asked the magic question: “What is your wager? … Hello! $9,800. A $20,000 payoff!”
I grinned and pumped the air as if I’d just recorded the final out in the World Series, as Alex walked over, said “Wow!” and shook my hand to make it official.
We bantered again at the mid-point of my second (losing) game and that was it. No second congratulatory handshake, no more time with Alex Trebek.
For another 30 years, he was the same consummate professional, the same warm presence, for thousands more players. He was kind, decent — a true gentleman. That’s how I felt when I was with him and what I felt whenever I tuned in to watch the show.
Trebek showed that knowledge can be fun, that it’s something to be valued and celebrated. He treated people with respect on the air and — when he wasn’t on the set — he lived the values he displayed. He donated $1 million to endow the National Geographic Bee for kids (similar to a national spelling bee) and hosting it for 24 years. He and his wife, Jean, used their family foundation to support causes from the USO to shelters for the homeless, land and wildlife conservation projects, and leadership and speakers programs at the University of Ottawa.
We need more good and decent people like him in our lives.
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