Nothing eases a household into evening like the unmistakably familiar jingle of the Jeopardy! theme song. Whether you’re a committed, couch-bound competitor, or you simply bob your head fondly to its timeless “Think!” song, the game show has been a quintessential element of American weeknights since it first aired in 1984.
It was a moment of collective loss, then, when the world received news of the passing of the man who brought a knack for knowledge and a healthy dose of competition into our homes: Alex Trebek, who passed away on November 8, 2020, at age 80 after a hard-fought battle with stage four pancreatic cancer.
For some lucky Badgers, the beloved host of “America’s Favorite Quiz Show” became more than a familiar face on television.
“I grew up with Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek in the house,” Suchita Shah Sata ’08 says. “Every night after dinner, we’d sit down to watch Jeopardy! Alex Trebek was as much in my house as [were] members of my family.”
Upon arriving at UW–Madison, Sata found herself in good company with roommates who shared in her affinity for the show. This came in handy when the neurobiology student was preparing to compete as a contestant in the show’s College Championship, which taped at the Kohl Center in 2008.
“It really was a dream come true,” Sata says, “and being such a proud Badger, to be there on the campus, with Bucky on the Jeopardy! stage, singing the UW fight song, it was just everything. I got an absolute culmination of the Wisconsin experience.”
Julia Sprangers ’13 had to travel a bit farther for her Jeopardy! appearance. After receiving word that she was chosen as a contestant while studying abroad in Granada, Spain, she flew to the taping of the 2013 College Championship in Los Angeles, California — a long-awaited destination that she says was well worth the trip.
“I never thought of myself as being able to compete on a national stage for anything, and I have so much pride in Wisconsin,” Sprangers says of representing the UW in the tournament. “It was a dream not only to be able to go on the show, but [also] to represent my college, and I definitely preferred that to going in any other capacity."
As any true Jeopardy! fan knows, the chance to compete is about far more than putting one’s smarts and speed to the ultimate test:just as surreal as being on the Kohl Center’sstage and equipped with a buzzer, Sata says, was meeting the man with the questions himself — though there was nothing puzzling about his liking for the local food scene.
“I was getting my slice of mac n’ cheese pizza from [Ian’s Pizza], and Alex Trebek and one of the producers were there,” Sata says. “I remember him commenting that, ‘Oh, you look a little too short to be a neurobiology major,’ which was one of the funniest things. I didn’t quite understand what he meant by it, but I also was honored that he even knew what my major was.”
Just as much a gentleman as he was a jokester, Trebek took time to interview and take photos with all of the contestants who had spent lifetimes vying for a coveted spot behind one of his podiums.
“He was a really classy person and really took a lot of pride in his role on the show,” Sata says. “I think he is as much Jeopardy! as the questions and answers are.”
Sprangers’s introduction to Trebek was far less relaxed than chatting over a slice of pizza on her home turf: she was on the Jeopardy! stage, the lights went up, and there he was.
“I remember being completely starstruck. I’ve never met a celebrity in my life, and I’ve probably watched more of Alex Trebek than [I have] anybody else on television,” she says. “It was really cool, but also, ‘Okay, he’s looking at me. He’s asking me a question,’ — or, giving me an answer, I should say.”
Amidst her shock at Trebek’s sudden appearance and her nerves as play commenced, Sprangers remembers the host as the “pro” whose charm and finesse in delivering clues and interacting with contestants had endeared him to audiences for years.
“He hardly stumbles, and he’s so calm, but he has a very authoritative presence. It’s very reassuring,” Sprangers says. “When we think of the show, we think of Alex. They’re inextricably linked.”
It’s for this reason that memories of being on the show overshadow the minor detail of the outcome. Though she did not advance beyond the quarterfinals, Sata remembers her Jeopardy! appearance fondly as a dream come true — and as a secret weapon to unleash on trivia nights with unsuspecting friends.
“We had so much fun just going through the experience of being on the show. It almost felt like the competition part was in the background. Doing our best and being able to compete in the real game was really the winner,” she says. “It was less about the competition, but really about achieving a lifelong dream.”
Sata and her fellow competitors kept in touch well after the taping of the show and reconvened to send a card to Trebek upon the announcement of his cancer diagnosis, a tribute to the genuine kindness of America’s favorite game show host.
Also stopped short in the quarterfinals, Sprangers warmly remembers competing with fellow contestants who were also living out their Jeopardy! dreams and chatting with Trebek as the credits rolled. Now an associate with Sidley Austin in Chicago, she says her Jeopardy!-watching habits have waned since her appearance on the show, but she still tunes in from time to time — especially now, as tournaments become tributes to its late host.
“I think I’m going to have to brace myself and watch some of these tributes to Alex. It’s going to be hard, just because he was such a big feature in so many of our lives,” Sprangers says. “He’s just truly an icon to so many of us.”
Sata, who works as a hospitalist with Duke University Hospital, remains a dedicated Jeopardy! fan, taping what episodes she misses and setting house rules with her husband for answering questions to keep play fair. As for the backlog of episodes yet to be watched, Sata thinks she’ll hold on to those for a while.
“I was deleting them as I finished, but I think I’m going to save quite a few so I have some more memories of Alex Trebek as a host,” she says.
“Alex Trebek is the show. I haven't gotten used to using the past tense. So, I guess, he was the show.”