Because famous people have little privacy, everyone knows that the host of the game show "Jeopardy!," Alex Trebek, is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer, even as he continues to work. At 79, Mr. Trebek still seems perfectly healthy each evening on TV, as he guides three contestants through a no-frills test of the width of their knowledge, the speed of their reaction time and the craftiness of their strategy. But we “Jeopardy!” lovers fear that our beloved Alex may soon be the one “for whom the bell tolls,” the correct response to which is “Who is John Donne?”
More than entertainment, Alex Trebek’s "Jeopardy!" is a cultural icon. From its special tournaments — teens, college students, champions, celebrities — to its appearance in the movie “Groundhog Day,” when Bill Murray knows the correct answer to every clue because he has relived it hundreds of times, from the couple that got married after meeting as contestants to the human brains that tried to beat a computer named Watson, "Jeopardy!" is an American institution. It asserts that common knowledge unites us, and that intelligence matters.
I admit that "Jeopardy!" is in my blood. During my childhood in the 1960s, my mother watched Art Fleming religiously as he hosted the daily quiz at noon from New York City. My mother’s memory retained everything she read, which she did insatiably, and her "Jeopardy!" prowess was a thing of beauty. She could instantly summon obscure facts, and she always framed her responses in the form of a question, because that was the rule of the game. As we lived an hour north of the city, my siblings and I regularly begged our mother to audition to be a contestant. We knew she would slay on TV. But as with many proposed adventures in her life, she said she had to lose weight first.
So by the time my mother and I went together to take the not-yet-online test, the "Jeopardy!" production had moved to Los Angeles, as had we. It was the early 2000s, and my mother’s knowledge of pop culture had not kept up with the times: She failed the entrance exam. She was particularly annoyed that I’d passed because I knew things she considered silly, like Destiny’s Child. Nevertheless, by the time I actually was a contestant in 2003 and came in second, my mother cheered me on from the studio audience.
Competing on "Jeopardy!" and attempting to be witty with Alex Trebek was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. The set was smaller and the audience closer than it looks on TV. I stood on a small box between two taller male contestants. I aced my Daily Double (the category was plays: yay!), but I missed Final Jeopardy (a science category: wah). The show was over before I even took in, let alone appreciated, the fact that I was on "Jeopardy!" Alex was unfailingly gracious throughout the half-hour, but I sensed at the time that he was sort of looking through me, that I was not registering as an individual person. And of course I wasn’t: Alex Trebek taped five shows a day and chatted with thousands of contestants, all of us bright and expectant and a little freaked out, and he was nice to all of us and put us at ease, even though he would only interact with most of us that one time. He was a professional. He was a class act. I’m glad I got to meet him.
Several months after my ill-fated appearance, the mail arrived with my prize money and a framed photo of Alex and me. Alex looks perfect. I am wearing my sister’s fashionable jacket and smiling way too hard. I probably should have lost weight first.
Now I watch over Alex like I am his evening nurse: How does he look? Does he seem tired? Is he making mistakes? Is he wearing a wig? I want him to be his usual hale and hearty self forever. I want the cancer to be intimidated by him and leave his body of its own accord. Because Alex Trebek is a national treasure, even if he is Canadian. He has always been suave and savvy, with or without his mustache, but more than that, he has always celebrated the smart people among us. Alex makes it acceptable to care about grammar, to know stuff about history, to be good with numbers, to locate places on a map; in short, to be inquisitive and nerdy. With our current leadership making ignorance cool and name-calling fashionable, Alex Trebek endures as a champion of critical thinking and the embodiment of elegance in half-hour weeknight doses. I don’t want him to go. I don’t want him to die. I don’t want to see that last show, although I am certain he will teach us, as he always has, how to lose — and win — with grace.