Last week, while our nation was spiraling down toward chaos, we lost a precious man. Actually, Alex Trebek had left us several weeks ago but through the magic of television, he had remained with us like a ghostly dividend of kindness and decency at a time when those essential human commodities seemed in exceedingly short supply.
I did not know Alex Trebek, but I felt (I suspect like many of you) I did. For many years, he had been a welcome guest in our home despite the fact he always seemed to show up right around suppertime. He had been the host of Jeopardy! since 1984, presiding over that iconic show for more than 8,000 episodes, a mind-bending run of longevity in a medium characterized by gnat-like attention spans and dominated by jaded viewers “what-have-you-done for-me-lately” mindset. Alex would be the last person ever to brag, but he won seven Emmy Awards for his hosting ability, which was likely the natural offshoot of his modest and charming persona. Over the years, he rose to become a one-man electronic Mt. Rushmore, the face of intelligent television—I know; that’s almost an oxymoron—yet he never came across as a dilettante or a know-it-all. Like all good teachers, he made learning fun by allowing his viewers to challenge their recall and to unlock and assemble their own puzzles.
Alex was a celebrity who never seemed comfortable with that status. He was kind, sincere, uncomplicated, decent, resilient, and unequivocally brave in the face of a dreadful disease. He was a handsome man, sober in dress and temperament. Born in Canada (he became a naturalized American citizen in 1988), Alex had a wonderfully understated sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. Through no fault or ambition of his own, he achieved one-name status—think Cher, Sting, Serena—with just a little bit extra. Johnny Gilbert, Jeopardy!’s long-time announcer, always introduced him as Alexxx, before adding the surname ‘Trebek’ almost as an afterthought.
Jeopardy! was unique: a television show with an appealing format and a personable quiz-show host who already knew all the answers; all we had to do was ask the right questions. It was entertaining, informative, and, dare I say, fun. I have aging friends who watch Jeopardy! to keep their minds sharp and young friends who enjoy its competitive challenge. I’ve even caught myself yelling at contestants when I know the correct answer and they don’t. (It happens occasionally.) Alex would surely have frowned at such a display of poor sportsmanship.
Ken Jennings, a former Jeopardy! champion who holds the record for the longest winning streak (74 games) in the history of the show, will succeed Alex, for now as a “guest host.” He certainly will not replace him; I doubt anyone ever will. Mr. Jennings, who is lightening quick and highly intelligent, seems nice enough, but (in my opinion) he’s a bit smug. Still, I wish him well. However, as to whether or not he’ll have an open-ended dinner invitation in our house, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Last week, Alex walked off the set for the last time. As was his custom, his departure was both sweet and self-effacing. He gave a humble little wave and murmured his signature “So Long!” as he turned and walked backstage. I like to think he now knows the answer to the ultimate Final Jeopardy question, the one that awaits us all in the end.
All too often, the public persona of an individual doesn’t seem to align with what we discover about his/her private doppelgänger. By all accounts, the Alex we saw on television was, in fact, the real and true Alex. These days, perhaps more than ever, we don’t need heroes as much as we need honest, decent people who understand that kindness, caring, and community matter profoundly. These were Alex’s watchwords. Now, they are his legacy.
So long, Alex. Fade to black.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com