Every weekday at 7:30 p.m., Jeopardy!’s title credits flash across the television screen. Three contestants and a family friend walk out onto the floor to an enticing crescendo, their names announced by legendary narrator, Johnny Gilbert, as they receive a well-deserved standing ovation from the studio and at-home audiences. Half an hour later, viewers go their separate paths, feeling a bit better and richer than 30 minutes prior. On Nov. 8, 2020, the world said its final goodbye to the host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek.
At 80, Trebek died from complications of pancreatic cancer. A testament to his spirit, Trebek continued to film episodes two weeks up to his death, which will air until Christmas Day. Having spent 37 seasons as host, Trebek left his podium empty for the first time since Jeopardy’s revival in 1984. But Trebek was not just a game show host: He was devoted to life-long learning, and in this respect, he was in a league of his own.
Born in Sudbury, Ontario on July 22, 1940 to a Ukrainian father and Franco-Ontarian mother, Trebek grew up in a bilingual household. His Northern Ontario roots grounded him, instilling a hard-working mentality—a “Canadianness” he would later claim made him brave in the face of cancer. He graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy and with his heart set on a career in broadcast news. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was the starting point for this dream: Here, Trebek hosted different shows, ranging from a teen music program, Music Hop, to covering curling and other sports. But it was on game shows that Trebek developed the passion that viewers know him by today. His Canadian trivia shows included Strategy, an afternoon program, and the classic high school competition, Reach for the Top. Over the next several years, he flourished, taking the reins of both American and Canadian quiz shows, and eventually landed his role as host of the newly revived Jeopardy!.
Jeopardy!’s concept is straightforward: Three contestants, three rounds; answer right, win money; answer wrong, lose money. Trebek, as host, read the answers and verified whether contestants were right or wrong in their questions. This simple concept made for an intriguing competition. Contestants like Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and James Holzhauer dominated the game. The first female winner of the Tournament of Champions, Rachael Schwartz, 20-time champion Julia Collins, and the first winner of both the Teachers’ Tournament and Tournament of Champions, Colby Burnett, changed public perceptions of who could compete in trivia. These contestants, among the plethora of Jeopardy!’s fantastic competitors, established personal bonds with Trebek, making the mid-round conversations during the show more entertaining. In fact, in his memoir, The Answer Is…, Trebek recalled having tears in his eyes seeing Jennings leave after his historic 74-game run.
In his 36 years, Trebek extended past the question-answer format. He was known to contribute comments after the questions and in discussion, adding his insights and connecting pieces of knowledge together. In doing so, Trebek pushed trivia beyond the sphere of right-or-wrong and into an interactive experience of sharing knowledge and learning from each other. His fashion became something of note, as he switched up his facial hair and wore consistently fantastic suit and tie combinations. His factual accuracy, due to his collaboration with researchers, mixed with his witty humour and ability to connect with people, made him into a beloved icon. Trebek embodied what Jeopardy! strived to do—favour the positives, emphasize the importance of knowledge, and have some fun along the way.
Alex Trebek’s graciousness, work ethic, and character were vital to generations of viewers. Trebek was never the star of the show, nor did he want to be; he was a friend who made us feel less alone in loving trivia. He was a champion of life-long learning and for that, the world is eternally grateful.