If it looks like being a game show host may be the easiest job on Earth, it's because Canadian-born broadcaster and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek made it seem so.
Unlike the flashy, plaid sportscoat-sporting emcees of the '70s who tried to be the center of attention, Trebek, who died at age 80 on Sunday after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer, didn't need to work for his audiences' or viewers' attention.
He could command with just a look, something that several Dallas residents and natives who competed on the show noticed during their time behind the podium, including Elizabeth Byle Schmitt, an East Dallas resident who teaches sixth and eighth grade at Lakehill Preparatory School.
She describes the look as "a slight narrowing of the eyes and brow furrow."
"We got a look of disbelief in a category. ... In our game, the category had to do with 'ticks,' not facial but the parasite. We were all stumped on a question and got the Trebek look like, 'How could you not know that?'"
Trebek's job on the show wasn't as some smarmy schoolmaster or know-it-all moderator. His goal was to put people at ease so they could bring their A-game.
"During the contestant interview and the post-game talk, he focused on you," Schmitt says. "He genuinely wanted to draw out what you were interested in and talking about. It really helped put me at ease."
Marshall Comeaux, a North Dallas native and junior business major at the University of Texas at Austin, says Trebek's role wasn't just to read answers with a crystal clear timbre and keep track of the dollar amounts that have been chosen. It was also to put the players at ease to get the best competition out of them.
"The big day is nerve-racking," says Comeaux, who competed on the show's most recent College Championship show where he finished as a semifinalist. "I had been in California for a little over two days preparing to be on the show. The contestants don't get to meet Alex before the actual taping. So I went into it not knowing what to expect.
"Walking onto the stage, even after rehearsals, I was nervous," Comeaux adds. "The cheering crowd, the music, the lights all seemed surreal, but when Alex Trebek came on stage, he had an amazingly calming presence."
Christi Beard, an Envoy flight attendant from Dallas who now lives in Chicago and appeared on the show in 2005, says on the day of her competition, Trebek and the crew shot five episodes and the contestants waiting to go on stage got to watch everyone from the audience. The interaction between the players and the host are limited mostly to what we see on TV. The only part not shown is a commemorative photograph they get to take after the shows are filmed.
That's when Trebek showed off his wackier side, one that didn't always make its way to the airwaves, Beard says.
"He walked over to me and put my arm around me and one of the regular cameras took a photo of me," Beard says. "As we took our photo, he leaned over and kissed me on the top of my head and it caught me off-guard and everyone went 'Awwww.' Then [contestant Jamie Quintong] went over and they took a picture and Alex went for the laugh and kissed him on the top of the head."
Comeaux recalls another funny moment that didn't make it to TV during one of his two appearances in the college tournament.
"My favorite memory of interacting with him came halfway through one of my episodes," Comeaux says. "He stopped the game, looked at me and told me that in his decades of hosting Jeopardy!, he had never seen anyone buzz the way I was buzzing."
Theresa Conlon, an administrative assistant from Dallas who went on the show in 2009, is one of the lucky few who got to meet Trebek outside of the Jeopardy! set. She was the Missouri finalist in the National Geography Bee in 1993 where Trebek often hosted the competition's final televised round. It became the story they talked about on her Jeopardy! appearance.
"I just remember being in so much awe from seeing him on TV," Conlon says. "I was standing there talking with him and two other contestants. I don't remember anything. It's kind of a blur. The whole thing goes by so fast."
Comeaux says even as he dealt with the complications of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Trebek never lost his focus on the show's path or the atmosphere of the studio.
"He created a few jokes to loosen up the audience, but it also loosened up the contestants," Comeaux says. "He was clearly in a lot of pain,but the courage he showed in smiling through the pain, his gracious professionalism cast a sense of awe and respect on the crowd and the contestants."
Conlon says just knowing that she was one of the few trivia buffs to stand in his storied and celebrated presence was enough of an honor.
"I've always been kind of nerdy and always been into trivia," Conlon says. "He's very well rounded. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. I think it's just kind of famous for more intellectual pursuits, which is kind of a different celebrity than what is typical."
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