Claremont-affiliated ‘Jeopardy!’ contestants reflect on late host Alex Trebek

A composite image of two jeopardy contestants with host Alex Trebek.
Pomona College music professor Melissa Givens and Daniel Ludlam CM ’18 reflect on their Jeopardy experience following the passing of host Alex Trebek. (Courtesy: Photos courtesy respective individuals)

When Pomona College music professor Melissa Givens’ nieces told her that she needed to audition for the game show “Jeopardy!,” she wasn’t exactly ecstatic about the idea. 

A lifelong “Jeopardy!” fan, Givens loved watching it with her family, but she wasn’t confident about her chances of standing on the “Jeopardy!” stage, a lengthy process that entails both online and in-person knowledge tests before prospective candidates are placed in a general pool for a year, with no guarantee of being called to tape a show.  

“My nieces had been talking about it: ‘Auntie, you really should audition for ‘Jeopardy!,’ so I said, ‘Whatever.’ The test came up and I just took it, sitting in my office one day getting ready to get home. I just thought, ‘I’ll just take this test. I’ll see what happens.’ Didn’t expect anything to happen,” Givens said. 

But despite her low expectations after taking the online test in January, Givens got a call a couple of weeks later inviting her to take another test over Zoom. After making her way through the rest of the vetting process, Givens was invited to tape a show in early September. 

Givens’ “Jeopardy!” episode aired Nov. 10, to a mood unlike any she had expected. Just two days prior, Alex Trebek, host of 36 years, died at the age of 80 after a 20-month battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer

You’re already in a unique fraternity, being on ‘Jeopardy!…’ But then to be among the last group that he was able to work with, that’s history.” — Pomona College professor Melissa Givens 

“You’re already in a unique fraternity, being on ‘Jeopardy!,’ even if you only do what they call a one-and-one. But then to be among the last group that he was able to work with, that’s history,” Givens said. “He was on for generations, and I think to a large degree, the show is inextricably linked to him.” 

Lt. j.g. Daniel Ludlam CM ’18 echoed Givens’ sentiment. Ludlum taped an episode of “Jeopardy!” in 2018 during his time at Claremont McKenna College. Presently, he is serving in the U.S. Coast Guard as a deck watch officer aboard the USCGC Stone. 

“The news of Alex Trebek’s passing was heartbreaking,” Ludham said via email. “I feel fortunate to have met him and competed on the show with him, and will always look back fondly on my time there. I am glad to have seen posts on social media, interviews in the news, and heartfelt tributes from all over the trivia universe honoring his legacy.”

Taping “Jeopardy!” was a labor of love. Five shows were taped each day, and Trebek managed this tight schedule well, as CMC government professor Jack Pitney remembered from his time on the show in 1991. 

“The key word is professional. People on set told us, ‘Alex doesn’t like to stop tape.’ He ran a tight ship. He was cordial, but he knew he was on the clock, so he ran people through,” Pitney said. “That’s the impression I got, somebody who was a consummate professional, someone who knew exactly what his job was, what he was doing. It was live to tape television, and he was determined that everything would come off smoothly and on time.”

But even with his drive for productivity, Trebek’s genuine warmth and wishes for success toward candidates were evident both on-screen and off during his almost 37 years on the show. As both Givens and Ludlam reflected on their experiences on the show, this kindness was at the forefront of their memories. 

“Alex Trebek had a very warm, down-to-earth personality,” Ludlam said. “I did get a few questions wrong, including a final question that was fairly easy in hindsight, but there wasn’t any condescension on his part. In fact, after I lost, he came up to me and congratulated me on my performance, saying he knew very few college students who could hold their own on the show. His banter with the other contestants was fun, he seemed genuinely interested in all of our stories, and loved answering the audience’s questions.”

Givens’ experience was similar to Ludlam’s. After she did not win her episode, “he was very kind. He talked to each of us, the two of us that didn’t win,” she said. “I can’t remember exactly what he said, and I wish I did; I wish that was in the broadcast, but it was something to the effect of, ‘You were doing really well, but it wasn’t to be,’ or something like that, and I said, ‘Yeah, but I was here.’ And it was all good.”

Pre-recorded episodes with Trebek will continue to air through Dec. 25, fruit of Trebek’s push to continue working up until he physically could not. 

As a cultural icon, Alex Trebek leaves behind big shoes for anyone to fill. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the show will persist, educating and inspiring folks across the world.” — Daniel Ludlam CM ’18

“Everybody had known about his struggle with cancer, how much pain he had endured in recent years but how hard he worked to stay on the job. It was a tribute to his determination and his resilience that he was able to work as long as he did,” Pitney said. 

As viewers and contestants from around the world mourn Trebek’s passing and struggle to imagine “Jeopardy!” without him, it is clear that the host’s legacy will not soon be forgotten. 

“Clearly, Alex Trebek’s legacy will live on for a long time,” Ludlam said. “His tenure on the show shaped it into the staple of American television that we know and revere today. As a cultural icon, Alex Trebek leaves behind big shoes for anyone to fill. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the show will persist, educating and inspiring folks across the world. I want to see the show go on, continuing to carve out a space for trivia geeks like myself in mainstream culture.” 

A new host of “Jeopardy!” has not yet been announced, but Givens is sure that the dearly loved show will continue to delight viewers all over the world, carrying the impact of Trebek forward. 

“I think it will be a difficult thing for the person who has to follow him, but I also think that the show itself is such a cultural touchstone for so many people that it kind of has to go on,” Givens said. “He loved the show, he loved the process, he loved the contestants, but I think he loved the institutions of the show as much as anything. To not continue the show after he died, as hard as it is for any of us to imagine that, would be a betrayal of his legacy.”

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