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Jeopardy! champions share their fondest Alex Trebek memories

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It’s the end of an era for one of TV’s most iconic shows. Jeopardy! is airing the very last episodes featuring host Alex Trebek, who died in November following a battle with pancreatic cancer.

While Jeopardy! will move on with different hosts, starting with trivia superstar Ken Jennings, Trebek’s legacy will be ever-present in the show’s future.

CNN asked some recent Jeopardy! champions to share their memories of with Alex Trebek during his final season of the show, and their responses reveal just how much Trebek’s spirit and influence extended beyond the podium.

Ryan Hemmel
4-time champion

“My favorite memory from my time on Jeopardy! was Alex’s opening message during the Thanksgiving day show, which embodied all of the values that he was about: optimism, compassion and unity. It was an honor to be on the stage as he delivered that statement, and will be one of those things that sticks with me for the rest of my life.

In that game the correct response to Final Jeopardy! was Om, and after the show was over, Alex came over to myself and my fellow contestants (Zack and Aaron) and led us through a chant of Om, which was a really cool and special moment as well.

Overall, even though Alex was definitely visibly struggling a bit with his illness, the thing that stood out to me the most was that he clearly genuinely enjoyed hosting the show and wanted to keep doing so as long as he was able to. He was in great spirits during all of my tapings with him, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have gotten the chance to share the stage with such an amazing man.”

Carmela Chan
3-time champion

“Alex Trebek was like a member of my family. One of the earliest television shows I ever remember watching was Jeopardy! No matter what else was happening in the world, he was the one constant that would show up every evening at 7:30.

In every show, it was abundantly clear just how much he cared for knowledge and trivia, and as a viewer, one could instantly tell how much fun he was having on the show. In person, that feeling was magnified a thousandfold.

In the four shows I got to tape with him, I never once got an inkling of the discomfort or pain that he must have been going through. He always wanted to make each episode the best, most fun show, and was incredibly kind and generous throughout, not just to the contestants, but to his staff, who all clearly loved working for him.

He took the time to give us all words of encouragement, or even sometimes a mock ‘stern’ pep talk if we hadn’t bet enough. He loved joking around with us, and at the end of my first show, he turned to us and said, ‘Gosh, I had fun! I hope you all did too.’

As a contestant and a viewer, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we have had so much fun watching him over the decades and I can’t thank him enough for all the joy that he’s brought to our lives.”

Kevin Walsh
5-time champion

“I’ve been a fan of the show for the entirety of his run and Alex is the main reason I came to regard it as a warm and welcoming institution. He struck the perfect tone – erudite, but accessible; winking and wry; and always clearly rooting for the contestants to play boldly and win big. He made it cool to be smart.

Finally appearing on the show was a dream come true, but interacting with Alex sent it all into the stratosphere. He carried himself and controlled the games so smoothly that you’d never have known he was ill. A consummate professional, but also warm and encouraging. Even when he’d express his disappointment at contestants missing a clue on Canadian geography – as I did – it was with the air of a supportive parent or teacher, admonishing you to do better.

The two specific moments I still carry with me are very small, but meaningful to me. During one interview segment, I was able to elicit a chuckle from him and making Alex Trebek laugh felt like winning a game in itself. Second, a few games into my run, I was admonished to rewrite a wager due to poor (nervous) penmanship. Without even looking up from his lectern, Alex offered a wry ‘Come on, Kevin, you’ve been here before.’

I know it’s goofy, but that gentle ribbing made me feel more a part of Jeopardy! than actually playing the game.”

Andy Wood
4-time champion

“Alex Trebek impressed me most with his professionalism when I was taping my episodes. Jeopardy! tapes five episodes a day, which is a pretty grueling schedule, and I’m pretty sure there was only one time in all five of the games I played when Alex had to re-read a single clue, and I think that was only because he didn’t love the wording and was making an edit on the fly.

During the tapings he gave no indication that he wasn’t 100% healthy. If I hadn’t known in advance that he was ill, I wouldn’t have guessed it from his performance on the set. During commercial breaks the contestants could overhear a producer talking with Alex and basically saying, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this…’ and letting him know that they could stop at any time if he needed to. But he shrugged that off and insisted that the production continue, only making a lighthearted joke about wishing they could just tape one episode a day.

“In retrospect I’m really impressed with how deftly he handled the post-game chats with all three contestants. Five times a day, he would have to moderate what should be a very uncomfortable conversation between one extremely happy person and two people who are probably not too excited to have just lost to that person, and the grace he showed in doing that for decades is really incredible — it’s something akin to a doctor having good bedside manner.”

Kristin Hucek
3-time champion

“I had been watching Jeopardy! since I was young, so appearing on the show while Alex was still the host was really a dream come true. If pressed, I would have a hard time choosing which event was more memorable: My wedding, which was scheduled for the same week, or my Jeopardy! appearance.

And of course, the most exciting part of the entire experience was undoubtedly meeting Alex. He is such a cultural icon and an integral part of the show. It was very humbling to see when the cameras started rolling that I was appearing on the 8259th episode of the show, in its 37th season with Alex as the host.

He was just as kind, engaging, and thoughtful in person as he appears on TV. Given that they tape five shows per day, I was struck by how quickly Alex was able to connect with each group of new contestants that was brought in especially given what we now know about the advanced stage of his illness.

I was also struck by how much of a perfectionist he is — he reviews the answers and questions for each game as if they were a script, making notes for himself about pronunciation of each of the words to ensure that he said each of them properly.

His dedication and clear passion for his work were inspiring to witness. And though I am sad about his passing and sad for the many contestants and the audience who will not get to experience him hosting anymore, I am glad that he was able to do what he loved right up until the very end. That we all could be so lucky!”

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