Alex Trebek’s final episode as host of “Jeopardy” aired on Friday night, and television officially said goodbye to one of its most recognizable icons of the past four decades. My wife and I have watched religiously over the years. We even resorted to recording episodes in case we got home too late for our 22 minutes of trivia. It’s been a weeknight ritual for quite some time now.
Trebek’s constant presence in Americans’ living rooms was a source of comfort and nostalgia in a world that never stops changing. It felt as if he might be there for us forever until he announced in March last year that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Trebek’s impact reached well beyond the United States–and for that matter, living rooms. He was an avid supporter of the armed forces, volunteering with the United Service Organization (USO) for most of his tenure on “Jeopardy.” He went on 13 tours with them during his 37 years as host, thanking the troops for their service and bringing them a bit of stability and normalcy thousands of miles from home. According to USO’s website, Trebek’s visits to military installations included South Korea, Iceland, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Philippines.
Trebek may have gained some of his respect for service members and what they endure during a very brief stint at military school. In his original homeland of Canada, Trebek lasted only three days in the Regular Officer Training Program (ROTP) for the Air Force, as he explained in his autobiography (“The Answer is… Reflections on My Life”) published earlier this year. The last straw for Trebek was the haircuts:
“…That’s what put me over the edge. In those days hairdos were big. I had a good head of hair–a sort of pompadour with a ducktail in the back. I’d be damned if I was going to let them shave it off.”
Despite the comical and somewhat embarrassing nature of his departure from “military life,” Trebek held the armed forces in the highest regard. The main purpose of his USO tours was to boost morale on military bases, including seldom-visited ones (musicians and celebrities often travel with much larger crews. He made it a point to go to smaller ones that weren’t typically visited). He was also occasionally out there scouting for new contestants, including for the multiple “Armed Forces” weeks that “Jeopardy” produced. As told in a 2012 article by Cristina Silva for Stars and Stripes, he was encouraging service members in Naples to audition. One sailor told him he wasn’t smart enough and Trebek quipped back, “I’ll tell you if you’re smart enough.”
Another excerpt from Alex Trebek’s book summarizes his trips overseas: “That’s one of the things that struck me most on my USO trips: the camaraderie aspect of it. When you are part of a group, then you have a common purpose. A common goal. Your resolve is increased and you can do marvelous, marvelous things together that would not be possible if you were left to your own devices. It’s okay to think Rambo is great. But Rambo with a dozen other Rambos can accomplish tremendous things.”
Alex might not have been a military man, but he certainly displayed plenty of qualities that we can all appreciate. He kept the fast-paced trivia moving (frankly, one of Jeopardy’s best qualities when compared with other game shows), with his orderly and efficient manner. That’s not to say he didn’t have a sense of humor. He was usually quick with a joke and a wry smile at some of the particularly strange or awkward stories told during introductions. He wasn’t afraid to take a subtle dig at contestants when they got an easy question wrong or failed to answer at all, but it always felt a little more dignified or classy coming from Trebek rather than one of his contemporaries.
Trebek didn’t mind a little fun at his expense, either. He loved Will Ferrell’s depiction of him on the well-known “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” and says in his book that Eugene Levy was even better than Ferrell in the parodies on “SCTV,” a Canadian comedy show in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He would get in costumes for our amusement on video clues and did various bits of comedy from time to time, like this personal favorite of mine from Kadena Air Base:
But Alex Trebek’s most admirable quality, especially through a military lense, is his incredible aura of military-like bearing. In this final year and a half where he was sometimes in excruciating pain (what would jump “from a 3 to an 11,” as he stated on CBS’ Sunday Morning), he never missed taping a single episode, never once publicly showed either fear or weakness, and never let what he was going through detract from that poise and grandfather-like wisdom that made him the best.
I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying he will be missed by the military community as well as the rest of the country. My wife and I will probably be watching re-runs from Netflix for a while until they announce his replacement and we get our favorite show back, but I am skeptical anyone will be able to fill those shoes.