Who Was Alex Trebek?
It was nearly seven o’clock in the evening on January 8, 2021. All over the East Coast of the United States, people turned on their televisions. It was time for Jeopardy!—a game show that tests the players’ knowledge in all sorts of areas from geography to history to pop culture to words that begin and end in a vowel.
Many Jeopardy! fans didn’t just watch the contestants on the show; they also played along at home. Sometimes they played against each other. If they were watching alone, they just shouted out the answers to themselves.
Tonight’s episode was very special. For thirty-seven years, the show had been hosted by Alex Trebek. This episode was his last. Alex had taped this final show months earlier, on October 29, 2020. He was very sick with cancer and could no longer work. Just a week after that, on November 8, 2020, Alex died. So, his fans were watching his last episode, knowing that they would never see him again.
The show’s familiar theme music started. A spinning globe filled the screen. Then Johnny Gilbert, the show’s announcer, declared, “This is Jeopardy! ”
Johnny introduced the day’s contestants. One was an assistant professor of English education from New York named Jim Gilligan. The next was a software engineering manager from Illinois named Cliff Chang. The third contestant was the returning champion. She had won the previous two days’ games. She was an executive assistant from California. Her name was Yoshie Hill. In the two days she had been on the show she had won $31,600.
When he finished introducing the contestants, Johnny said, “And now, here is the host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek!”
On this evening, the applause was even longer than usual. At the start of the episode, Alex asked everyone watching at home to be generous with each other. “We’re trying to build a gentler, kinder society,” he said. “If we all pitch in just a little bit, we’re going to get there.” Over the years, the audience had grown to love how Alex was always kind to contestants, making them feel good even when they lost the game. Everyone sitting in the audience and watching at home was going to miss seeing Alex on TV every evening. He was more than a television host; he had become part of their lives. Chapter 1: Life on the Nickel Range
On July 22, 1940, George Alexander Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Since he had the same first name as his father, his family called him Sonny. As he grew up, he preferred to use his middle name, Alex. Alex’s father was born in Ukraine, a country in Eastern Europe. When he moved to Canada, he changed his name from Terebeychuck to Trebek because it was easier for English-speakers to pronounce. Alex’s mother, Lucille, was from Canada. Like many Canadians, her first language was French. Alex’s father spoke several Eastern European languages, including Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish, so Alex grew up hearing different languages all around him, and he learned to speak two of them—English and French—fluently.
The town of Sudbury is in the Sudbury Basin, the third-largest crater on Earth. It was created when a comet hit Ontario 1 billion 850 million years ago. The comet scattered valuable metals like copper and gold all throughout the basin. People came from all over, especially Eastern Europe, to work in the mines there. Sudbury became known as the nickel capital of the world.
Alex’s father worked as a cook at the Nickel Range Hotel. Alex often got to sit in the hotel’s kitchen while his father cooked. Sometimes he was given little jobs to do, like cutting slices out of the big sheet cakes they served in the dining room.
When Alex was two, his sister, Barbara, was born. Alex took being a big brother seriously. One day when Alex was seven, he saw his five-year-old sister playing with some friends on the frozen river near their house. He scolded them for playing on the ice. If the river was not completely frozen, they could fall into the freezing water. To make sure it was safe, Alex tested the ice himself. He took a few steps. The ice beneath him cracked. Alex fell into the water. He splashed around desperately, trying to swim back to shore, but he couldn’t even tell where the shore was. The water carried him away across the river! He was pulled out by a passing railway worker who walked him back home, soaking wet.
There were two elementary schools in Sudbury. One of them taught all their classes in English. The other taught mostly in French. Alex decided to go to the French school, and so did many of his friends.
When Alex was nine, his mother got sick with tuberculosis, a contagious disease that affected her lungs. She had to go away to live in a hospital for more than a year. Alex missed her, but he and Barbara still had their father, as well as their grandparents, who also lived in town. And Alex had a lot of friends. They played sports after school, including hockey, baseball, basketball, and football.
After Alex’s mother returned from the hospital, the family moved into a new house, which his parents had been saving for. Alex liked his new home. His father converted the porch into a long bedroom for Alex and his sister to share. Alex was a good student, but when he was in seventh grade, he had trouble with a teacher, Mrs. Jennings. Mrs. Jennings didn’t like Alex’s handwriting because it slanted to the left. Good handwriting, she said, should slant to the right. When Alex’s writing leaned the wrong way, Mrs. Jennings slapped his hands.
Alex went home and told his parents, “I’m not going back to Mrs. Jennings’s class.”
Alex transferred to the English-speaking school. The students at that school were not very welcoming to a boy who had come from the French school. So, after two months, Alex returned to his French school. He even came back to Mrs. Jennings’s class. She never complained about his handwriting again.
Alex was glad to be back in his old school. He was also discovering something new to love: the radio. At night in his bedroom, he often lay in bed listening to broadcasts. Alex’s radio was small but powerful. It picked up stations from faraway cities like Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States. Alex especially liked listening to shows called The Great Gildersleeve
. Chapter 2: On His Way
When Alex got older, he became friends with a boy named Maurice Rouleau, whose father owned the Nickel Range Hotel. Maurice was a year older than Alex. In 1954, when Alex was in ninth grade, Maurice went away to an all-boys boarding school. Alex asked his parents if he could go to that school, too. So, the following year he joined Maurice at the University of Ottawa prep school.
That same year, Alex’s parents told him they were getting a divorce. His mother moved to Detroit, Michigan, where her sisters, Alex’s aunts, lived. Alex was angry and upset about his parents splitting up and his mother being more than four hundred miles away. It wasn’t the first time Alex had been separated from his mother. But when she went to the hospital, Alex knew she was coming back. Now she was starting a new life in a different country. His parents sold their house, and Alex’s father moved to a smaller apartment in Sudbury.
Alex’s anger showed in his schoolwork. Although he still liked playing sports at school, his grades dropped, and he didn’t pay attention in class. At the end of the school year, he was told that he should not return to the University of Ottawa prep school the next semester.
That summer at home, Alex started to regret not behaving well at school. His father thought he deserved another chance. So, the two of them drove together from Sudbury to Ottawa. Once there, Alex’s father begged the principal to let Alex return. He said yes. Alex made sure that the principal never regretted that decision.
Alex graduated from Ottawa prep in 1957. He hoped to go to college at the University of Ottawa. He didn’t have money to pay for the school, so he applied to the ROTP, or the Regular Officer Training Program. This was a program run by the Canadian Armed Forces. If he was accepted to the program, the government would pay for Alex to go to college. In exchange, he would serve in the Canadian military for two years.
Alex spent two days being tested at an air force base in London, Ontario. Three weeks later, he received his results. He did so well on the test, he was ordered to report to the Royal Canadian Air Force Academy college in Saint-Jean, Quebec. But Alex was very unhappy. He didn’t want to go to a military college six hundred miles away from home.
As soon as Alex reported to the Air Force Academy, he knew he didn’t like it. He was told what to wear and how to cut his hair. It was a tradition for older students to order the new students around and play tricks on them. Alex didn’t like that at all. So, he went to the vice commandant, who was in charge, and told him he was leaving. “Don’t worry, Sonny,” Alex’s father said when Alex returned home on the train. “Everything will be all right.”
Back in Sudbury, Alex first lived in a tiny room in the hotel for a while, then moved in with his mother’s brother and his wife, because they had an extra room where Alex could stay. He still didn’t have money for college, but in Canada, students could return to high school for an extra year that counted as a first year of college. So, Alex returned to Sudbury High, where he had spent ninth grade.
Alex’s room at his aunt and uncle’s house was barely big enough for a bed and a desk. But he still made room for his little radio that he loved. He often recorded his favorite shows and songs. There was only one thing Alex didn’t like about the radio. He disliked how the disc jockeys, or DJs—people who play prerecorded music to an audience—would talk over the beginnings of songs. His uncle Ben would laugh every time he heard Alex yelling at the radio, “Shut up! I want the whole song!”
Alex had grown up loving all sorts of shows, not just the ones that played music. He hoped to become a radio announcer, producing and hosting shows on all sorts of topics. He applied for a job at a local radio station. The station manager said he was too young to be an announcer, but that he had a very nice voice. Alex wasn’t discouraged. He knew he would try again one day.
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