Who was Alex Trebek? My memories of a gracious ‘Jeopardy!’ host, voice of inspiration

Clue: This host of “Jeopardy!” for 37 seasons, unparalleled in the game show genre, will be greatly missed, remaining an unforgettable inspiration for contestants and viewers alike.

Correct response: Who is Alex Trebek, a television icon who was even more special to all who had the genuine pleasure of meeting him. 

There has been a select group of thousands who have appeared on “Jeopardy!” over the years, through the regular games and tournaments. Even fewer have been so fortunate to face Trebek’s gauntlet of clues to come up with enough right answers to become a champion.

I was lucky enough to compete and win on “Jeopardy!,” now almost 23 years ago. I was luckier for having met him, shaking his hand and earning his respect. In the trying year that is 2020, with a whole lot of loss, the news of Trebek’s death on Sunday at age 80 has been a tough emotional blow.

Growing up with a thirst for knowledge that remains unquenched at age 44, I watched game shows at an early age. Once “Jeopardy!” first aired in 1984, it became an afterschool viewing staple. As I continued to absorb information and play along at home, there was no doubt my goal was to appear on the show in the future.

To me, it was just as much about getting to meet Trebek as getting the chance to compete for money. When I finally made it on in 1997, I was a senior at Northwestern. When it came to my on-air get-to-know interviews, I revealed to Trebek how much I wanted to be a successful sports or entertainment writer. I also got a chance to tell him that I passed both the teen and college tournament tests, but didn’t get the call to play in either.

There were some nerves and trying to figure out the buzzer on the first four clues Trebek read. But it was easy to be calm, relaxed and trust in what I knew after that, almost as if I didn’t want to let him down.

The best thing about winning three games and playing four shows was the chance to have a little rapport with Trebek. When I watch the episodes years later, I am reminded of his praise and exchange of friendly banter.

In the end, after I had lost and my short time on the show was over — all my episodes were taped on one day — Trebek left me with nine inspiring words: “Good luck to everything you do in life, Vinnie.”

When you watch the show, you notice many little moments like that, whether he was interacting with a short-term contestant or a legend such as Ken Jennings or James Holzhauer. Trebek also had a great sense of humor, willing to give a little ribbing when needed.

It’s hard to compare my experience going back-and-forth with Trebek to anything else. He was as gracious of a host as you would expect, a man who made sure every contestant felt like a lifetime member of the “Jeopardy!” family.

You never know who you’ll meet and what you’ll do in life. Whether it was a few hours in a studio or every weeknight for 30 minutes, a lot of people felt connected to Trebek. It will be hard to watch “Jeopardy!” without him, but it will be easier to know that his inspiring voice will always be with us.

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