By Sean Leonard
“This consummate host was welcomed into American homes for 37 years,” asked Christine O’Donnell, an alumna of the College and former “Jeopardy!” contestant. The answer: “who is Alex Trebek?”
The death of Alex Trebek on Nov. 8 devastated the “Jeopardy!” community after his long battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Fans grieved the loss of the game show legend — long admired for his warm personality and willingness to display his knowledge on contestants who missed clues.
O’Donnell (94’) appeared on an episode of “Jeopardy!” that aired on Sept. 17, 2018, taking her intelligence molded at the College to the national stage. She came in second place to Kyle Jones, who then went to the Tournament of Champions that year.
“It was hard, and people who know I have been on the show have reached out to me because I think we all feel like ‘Jeopardy!’ is a little bit of a family,” she said. “So, this was like losing your father to some extent, losing the patriarch of that family… Especially since we all wanted him to retire on his own terms.”
It took O’Donnell over a decade to earn a spot on the show after she was told only 400 contestants make it onto the show each season out of 40,000 people who complete the online test to qualify for an interview. After earning an interview in New York City, O’Donnell was given four weeks to prepare for filming.
“In that month, you cram as much as you can and you don’t remember anything when the cameras are rolling,” O’Donnell said.
For competitive reasons, contestants have no interaction with each other or with Trebek backstage before filming. She did not interact with Trebek until the first commercial break where he took pictures with the contestants and also chatted briefly after the show.
“My appreciation for Alex is like everyone else’s from watching him host the show for so many years,” she said. “The way he keeps the pace of the show, how he’s warm and encouraging at times but also makes it very clear when somebody misses a question they should’ve gotten… He is very much the ringleader of the show.”
O’Donnell said during commercial breaks, Trebek spent time interacting with the audience and allowed them to ask him questions to test his wits.
“He was very personable and really took his job as ambassador of the show seriously,” O’Donnell said. ”It would be very easy for the host to just go backstage or look through the next section, but he was out there meeting people and sharing his enthusiasm for the show as well.”
“Jeopardy!” has become a timeless piece of American pop culture. Its format has remained virtually unchanged since Trebek became the host in 1984, and the show has won more Emmy Awards than any other American game show — 39 to be exact, according to Jeopardy.com.
According to the New York Times, Trebek did not miss a single episode during this 37-year career that spanned over 8,200 episodes.
“What I found is that ‘Jeopardy!’ spans generations. Everybody knows it, and they’ve all watched it. Maybe not every day, but everybody knows that it is,” O’Donnell said. “It really has become part of the American culture, and I think [Trebek] had a lot to do with that.”
The success of “Jeopardy!” is attributed to Trebek’s dependability as a host and how fans always recognize clues while watching the show, according to O’Donnell.
“The clues make you appreciate what it is you’ve learned and what you know, and I think makes people feel smart for knowing it, and you also learn something probably every episode,” she said.
“Jeopardy!” will show 10 of Trebek’s best episodes between Dec. 21 and 28, and his final shows will air during the week of Jan. 4 before the new season that starts on Jan. 11. The show has not named a new permanent host, but next season will include several guest hosts. Ken Jennings, winner of the “Greatest of All Time” tournament and record-holder for the most consecutive wins, will be the first to temporarily replace Trebek, according to an online statement.
O’Donnell said the future host has big shoes to fill, but she does not envy the producers for trying to find a new host who shares Trebek’s style for the show.
“I think you want somebody with both gravitas but also a sense of humor,” she said. “And I always loved Alex’s impeccable pronunciation of foreign phrases, and that I think is going to be a challenge for a lot of people.”
Trebek maintained his grace until the end of his career. Just a few weeks before his death, Trebek delivered a heartfelt message that was posted on YouTube on Thanksgiving.
“There are more and more people extending kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing,” Trebek said. “Keep the faith. We’re going to get through all of this, and we will be a better society because of it.”