A Local Educator on Winning the ‘Jeopardy!’ 2020 Teachers Tournament

Grosse Pointe North High School choral music instructor Ben Henri reflects on his TV adventure
Any questions? Jeopardy! champ Ben Henri with the show’s iconic host, Alex Trebek.

There’s been precious little to celebrate in local education in this COVID-19-marred year, so it was a delight for local Jeopardy! fans in June, when a nattily dressed music teacher with product-slicked hair, from St. Clair Shores asked enough of the right questions to win the two-week tournament featuring K-12 teachers.

Ben Henri, a 37-year-old choral music instructor at Grosse Pointe North High School, bested 14 competitors over four appearances for the $100,000 top prize. The shows were taped in February before the pandemic shut down filming and altered the school year. He reflects here on the challenge of teaching remotely as well as his TV adventure, which continues with a berth on the annual Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions whenever the show can film it.

Hour Detroit: You’re a music teacher. How do you know so much?

Ben Henri: Originally, I was an engineering student at University of Michigan, so my background is wide-ranging. Also, musicians get a bad rap. Our content area intertwines with many other areas — history and art, social sciences and psychology, the science of sound, the anatomy of the voice. Also, I spend a lot of time with trivia. There’s a trivia website called Sporcle, and I’ve taken close to 30,000 quizzes on there.

What question did you get wrong that you kick yourself over?

There’s a couple. One was a choir question and the answer was a cappella. For years in college, I was in an a cappella group, and after college I was in one in Detroit called Two Weeks Notice. I’ll never live that down.

Since the coronavirus, you’ve been teaching online?

Yeah. I’d be the first to say not very well, but yeah. So much of choral artistry happens in the moment with people in a room together. You cannot duplicate it with a virtual choir. The best you can do is work on things that are tangentially related, like music history and theory. But I feel pretty useless because 90 percent of my students are not divas or soloists. They’re just there because they like to make music with their friends.

What do you think public education will look like this fall?

Your guess is as good as mine. There have been a lot of models proposed, like one where a portion of students come in on Monday and Tuesday, others come Thursday and Friday, and Wednesday is virtual class for everyone. Most of those ideas have been shot down.

On the other hand, you just won $100,000.

Yes, I have a cushion. It’s important to mention that that’s $100,000 pretax. I did just receive the check the other day, which was surreal and exciting.

Alex Trebek makes about $40,000 per episode. That makes the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament cheap, no?

Well, even he says that. On one of our episodes, he said, “The winner gets $100,000, runner-up gets $50,000, and third place is $25,000, so even on our show, teachers are underpaid.” I thought that was clever, but also like, “Well, then, give us more.” But they fly us out there, put us up in a very nice hotel, give us a generous stipend to pay for food, everyone who goes wins some money. And Alex is an institution — he’s the reason a lot of people watch.

What does Alex smell like?

I don’t know that I got a good whiff. Stage makeup? The place is cold, and he doesn’t get that close to you. He smells like success. He smells like knowledge.

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.