Alex Trebek isn’t just a TV icon. He was geography’s biggest fan.
Television icon Alex Trebek, longtime host of the trivia game show Jeopardy! and the founding host of the National Geographic Bee, died early Sunday, a year and a half after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in early 2019.
Beyond his legendary role at Jeopardy!, Trebek—a longtime advocate for geography education—had deep ties to the National Geographic Society, where he hosted the National Geographic Bee from 1989 to 2013. Trebek didn’t just ask the bee’s questions: He transformed it into a nationally broadcast contest among 10 contestants drawn from thousands of school-age competitors across the United States. In 2013, Trebek pledged $1 million to fund an endowment in support of the National Geographic Bee.
“He was a huge believer in geography education and was someone who deeply believed in the need to educate the population about geography—it was one of his great passions,” says Gary Knell, the chairman of National Geographic Partners and former CEO of the National Geographic Society.
Trebek shared his passion with others. Sathwik Karnik, the winner of the 2013 National Geographic Bee, says that he watched Jeopardy! as a child and looked up to Trebek as a role model. In fact, Karnik was motivated to participate in the bee in the first place because of Trebek and the promise to meet him. Seven years later, Karnik—now a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge—says that “geography has definitely played a huge role of my life, in understanding how different cultures work and why things are the way they are.”
Born in 1940 in Sudbury, Ontario, Trebek attended the University of Ottawa and started out as an announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when he was still in school. During his tenure there, he was a jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from hosting teen-music shows to working as a radio newsreader. In 1984, Trebek took over as the host of Jeopardy!, kicking off a 36-year reign as an island of tweed in an ever-growing sea of neon: a steadfast, unflappable, and unapologetically bookish titan of game-show television.
“Generations grew up with him as somebody who also stood for ‘smart was cool,’ which was a really important lesson for America,” Knell says.
Over the decades, Trebek and the show he built became enmeshed—enshrined, even—in American pop culture. The Jeopardy! tune has become synonymous with quickly approaching deadlines. Saturday Night Live parodies of Trebek by comedian Will Ferrell are now the stuff of TV-comedy legend. Former contestants such as Ken Jennings even have blossomed into personalities all their own. “Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did,” Jennings said in a statement on Twitter. “He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him.”
For the many millions who watched Jeopardy! at home, the television program transformed into a ritual: a place to test one’s knowledge, learn new factoids, explore the vast terrains of human knowledge and experience, and bond across generations. Great-grandchildren could sit alongside their elders, gleefully yelling answers at the television or egging on contestants to “make it a true Daily Double.”
Every night before she went to bed as a child, Cindy Cammarn of Durham, NC, gathered with her family to watch Jeopardy!. Her love of watching trivia competitions later inspired her to compete herself, taking her high school trivia team to compete at national championships in 2009 and 2010. In 2013, Cammarn represented Maine’s Bowdoin College on the Jeopardy! College Championships, making it to the semifinals.
“I can’t think of another figure in pop culture who’s been this enduring who is so beloved, and pretty much universally admired, but has this sense of gravitas about him,” she says. “You never got the sense that Alex was really taking this whole thing as a joke, or just doing it for a paycheck or anything like that, or just mugging for the audience.”
Just before Trebek’s final National Geographic Bee in 2013, writer Melody Kramer had the chance to talk with him about his 25 years with the event—and why he wouldn’t be a good contestant himself.
You’ve hosted the National Geographic Bee for the past 25 years. This is your last one. How do you feel?
A little sad. It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s going to be like leaving a family because we have become a lot like a family over the past quarter century.
Do you feel like you have a better handle on geography now that you’ve hosted the Bee and Jeopardy! for so many years?
Yes, I learned some geography from the Bee, but I was interested in the subject before I became the host and I continue to be interested in geography and continue to travel the world. (See our liveblog of the National Geographic Bee)
Have you ever traveled to a place based on learning about it in the Bee?
No. Most of the places I have visited, I’ve traveled to because of previous interest in that location.
What’s the strangest place you’ve been recognized?
In the Himalayas, walking along a ridge outside of Kathmandu.
Did they recognize you because of your work in the Bee or Jeopardy?
No, they recognized me from my work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1960s.
Have you crossed paths with some of the Bee winners after the Bee is over?
Some of the [Geographic] Bee winners have wound up on Jeopardy.
What’s that like?
That’s kind of fun.
Did you recognize them from their time at the Bee?
On a number of occasions, I haven’t recognized them. We get them in the Bee when they’re 10, 11, and 12—and then on Jeopardy when they’re 20.
How do the contestants’ reactions differ in the Bee and Jeopardy! when they aren’t doing well?
The children tend to react more than the adults. They show their emotions very readily. You see them tear up because they wanted to do so much better—there’s pressure from their teachers and their parents who came with them to Washington, D.C., and they don’t want to let them down. It’s more pressure—and I feel for them. On the other hand, I understand that they’ve accomplished a great deal just by getting here and they have their entire lives ahead of them and one [day] they will put this in proper perspective.
How did you learn geography?
I learned geography by looking through geography books and [atlases] and paying attention to all of the countries and also by reading National Geographic magazines. We couldn’t always afford them, but I made it a point to go to a lot of doctor and dentist appointments.
If you were in the Geography Bee, would you do well?
Why not? You’ve been the host of Jeopardy! for decades. You must know lots about geography.
The contestants are not subject to senior moments, which I am.
Do you ever worry about the pronunciation of the places you have to say for the Bee? Djibouti is a hard word to say.
Yes, but I try to do the correct pronunciation. I look up all of the pronunciations in a dictionary in advance, so I have them.
How much time do you have to do that?
Four to five days.
Some years, the Bee goes into multiple tie-breaker rounds. Are you ever worried you’ll run out of questions?
Yes. I think one year, we went to 128 tie-breaker questions. It was worrisome. I think we bring extra questions, just in case.
Do you think a show like Jeopardy!, which operates at such a high intellectual level and expects a lot from its audience, could get made today?
Yes, it’s a quality program and people appreciate quality. People appreciate the fact that they can test themselves against other members of their family. There’s always a place for that kind of show on television.
If a question/topic seems obscure, do you ever think: What’s the point?
There have been occasions when I thought that was the case, but I have been brought back to reality by extremely bright 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old kids who knew the correct answer to that particular question.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on May 21, 2013. Michael Greshko was on Cindy Cammarn’s high school trivia team, and for years, he has tried to snag a slot on the show by taking the Jeopardy!