Michigan ‘Jeopardy!’ Contestants Share Fond Memories of Alex Trebek

When news spread of the legendary host’s death, it stirred emotions among alums of the show
Alex Trebek
Stephanie Jass, who won nearly $150,000 on Jeopardy!, swears she inspired Alex Trebek to grow back his mustache. // Photograph courtesy of Stephanie Jass

When the pandemic wasn’t forcing Jeopardy! to take contestants only from within driving distance of its Culver City, California, studio, the game show frequently featured Michigan brainiacs. So when news spread of legendary host Alex Trebek’s death from pancreatic cancer in early November, it stirred emotions and fond memories among local alums of the show. We asked a few to share their Trebek tales.

“People probably don’t realize that Alex’s delivery of a clue was occasionally not the same delivery the players heard during the game. If he stumbled over, mispronounced, or just plain missed a word, he would re-record his voice-over during the next commercial break. He was most likely to mess up when players switched categories and dollar amounts unpredictably, which, I assume, is why he regularly mocked or complained about players jumping around the board. I was paying a lot of attention to Jeopardy! game theory when I appeared on the show, so I intended to bounce around hunting for Daily Doubles. However, I realized before playing my first game just how much Alex hated getting anything wrong, so I played straight up and down the categories for the most part. I like to think it paid off when Alex — the sole arbiter of how long a player has to answer on Daily Doubles — gave me what seemed like an extra-long time to come up with a critical Daily Double response during my third game.”

—John Schultz, Pittsfield Township, won $115,500 in eight games in 2015

“Sometimes, especially if you’re on more than one game, you got what a contestant coordinator called ‘Sassy Alex.’ In my case, Alex, who always loved to see a big payday, was surprised by my Final Jeopardy wager of $1,000 on an Oscars category. The question turned out to be easy, but I hadn’t known, obviously, that they would ask about that particular film. As he closed the show, Alex noted I’d made a low bet and told the audience he’d ask me why ‘tomorrow.’ When he started the next show, he did rib me a bit about the wager, to which I replied: If I’d known they were going to ask about one of my favorite movies (Patton), I’d have bet more! It could have felt unnerving, being called out by Alex Trebek, but it cemented something in my head: Alex is teasing me. I must be doing pretty good!

—Jennifer Quail, Dowagiac, won $230,800 in nine games in 2019

“Alex announced his stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis in March 2019 after my in-person audition but before I got the call to be on the show. We lost my wife’s father to pancreatic cancer, so when we heard about Alex, my stomach dropped. We know how most pancreatic cancer stories end — and how quickly they can end. Incredibly, Alex still soldiered on when I got the call. After I returned home from taping, I wrote Alex a thank-you note and told him about how my wife’s dad survived much longer than his doctors predicted. I never imagined he’d write back, but he did. I’m forever grateful for my experience, and I’m so touched to have this note from him. What a legend. What a loss.”

—Robin Miner-Swartz, Lansing, won $29,400 in three episodes in 2019

“Before Alex got sick, contestants would gather at center stage and chat with him at the end of the show. The first thing he asked us was, ‘So, was it good for you guys?’ I still chuckle about that to this day. After that icebreaker, he talked about his family history, his father who came from Ukraine and shortened the family name to Trebek, and his mother, a French Canadian. I wonder if he chose that line of conversation because he knew I was Armenian or if that was just a coincidence. That closing credits conversation is really the only close interaction contestants had with Alex.”

—Armen Terjimanian, Troy, won $2,000 in one game in 2013

“Alex was known for his precise pronunciations of foreign-language words. In my first game, Alex approached to chat on air with contestants after the first commercial break but mispronounced ‘Livonia.’ I corrected him. He took this in stride, then drolly noted that he had earlier misread my favorite hobby, bead weaving, as bed-wetting. I agreed this was an important distinction (!), then went on to describe the jewelry I make. When the show aired, it briefly made me possibly the most famous bead weaver in America.”

—Amanda Holm, Livonia, won $15,200 in two games in 2019

“My first experience with Alex was when I spent the entire day watching taping but was not selected to play. I saw him taking pictures with all the contestants and thought to myself, ‘How many times has he done that? He must be bored stiff. Somebody should do something fun to mix things up.’ Because I am an inappropriate and impulsive person, I thought to myself, ‘I should goose him.’ But then he stood behind me, not in front of me, so I was not in position. Instead, as we looked into the camera, I jumped and looked at him and said, ‘Alex!’ as if he had actually goosed me. Without missing a beat, he jumped and said, ‘Stephanie!’ When I went back for the Tournament of Champions, he comes up to me at the podium for the photo and I say to him, ‘So, are we doing this again?’ He says, ‘Doing what?’ I say, ‘You know.’ And he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then we take the picture, and as he walked away, he puts his hand on my bum. Like, ‘Of course I remember.’ Then, when I went back again for the Battle of the Decades tournament, I wanted a funny picture. I made fake mustaches for us on a stick. We take the picture and he asks to keep his. He held it up and said, ‘I really look good like this.’ I kid you not, when he came out for the next season, he had grown his mustache back. So yeah, I got Alex Trebek to grow his mustache back. It was confirmed by a contestant coordinator that he kept my mustache and whipped it out on stage whenever people asked where his mustache went.”

—Stephanie Jass, Tecumseh, won $149,570 in 11 games from 2012 to 2014