Alex Trebek has been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember, and the heartbreaking news of his death has brought back a flood of memories.
I started watching Jeopardy! as a young kid, and couldn’t wait to get home from school each day to see that day’s answers and questions. I tried out for the show and got the call in 2003 (17 years ago!) while I was a graduate student here at CSU. I still remember being in the studio for the first time, and as another former contestant, Brandon Blackwell, put it, “Ask any contestant – we’ll tell you it wasn’t being under the lights, walking onto the set, or getting in front of the cameras. The moment being on Jeopardy! finally hits you is when you see Alex Trebek in the flesh for the first time. Truly larger than life.”
Jeopardy! went on to pay for an engagement ring, a wedding, and a down payment on a house over the next few years, but I figured that was the end of it. (In the meantime, I had finished my Ph.D., moved away, and then moved back to Fort Collins again to work at CSU.) Then the “Battle of the Decades” tournament came around in 2014, and I got to see Alex and the crew again. And more importantly, to share the experience with a whole new set of friends and family, including our (at the time, very young) son.
And these are not isolated experiences – especially after Alex announced his pancreatic cancer diagnosis a couple years ago, the stories came from far and wide about what Alex meant to them: from family memories made from watching Jeopardy!, to life experiences enabled by winnings on the show, to, in a particularly poignant moment from one of the last shows to air before his passing, a contestant telling Alex that he learned to speak English because of him. And to think, he was working through a truly brutal disease to continue bringing moments like these to all of us.
One of the best things about having been on Jeopardy! is the community of former contestants: people from all different backgrounds and professions with a common curiosity and love of knowledge. And Alex Trebek fostered this community. Even though he was the face of the show, he let the contestants be the stars, and he clearly knew that everyone who walked on that stage was fulfilling a life-long dream. In a world that has changed so much in the last 37 years, with almost the entirety of human knowledge now available with a quick search, Jeopardy! remains a constant that rewards people for wanting to know more about the world around them.
There aren’t many people who have had such an important and lasting influence on so many. I know that the show will go on (and there’s still a month and a half of episodes to air with Alex as host), but it’ll never be the same. I’m thinking of Alex’s family in this difficult time, and the Jeopardy! family greatly misses you already.
Russ Schumacher is an associate professor in the department of atmospheric science, and serves as Colorado State Climatologist. He received his M.S. in 2003 and Ph.D. in 2008 in atmospheric science at CSU. He is also the winningest Ram ever to appear on Jeopardy!