By: Edward Simon Cruz
I’ve never met Alex Trebek, but after all those years seeing him on my TV, the news of his death struck me as if he were part of the family.
Everyone knows how Jeopardy! works—pick a category, answer in the form of a question, and know your stuff—but it took me until sixth grade to watch the show regularly. I immediately found something so satisfying about playing along from your couch, which lacks the adrenaline from being an actual contestant yet provides an experience of its own: I always smirked a bit when I got a question that none of the players knew, but I would almost invariably miss the next question on something much simpler. Trivia can do that to your ego.
Yet regardless of who won, who lost, or how much money anyone made, there was one constant: Alex Trebek, the man with the answers (and the questions). Professional yet sometimes biting in his snarkier moments, Trebek was always the largest person in the room. His venerable presence took a simple game and elevated it into something with dignity.
In the words of one of the show’s biggest champions, he was the “impartial arbiter of truth.” Another mega-champion called him “the last of the great old-school broadcasters,” back when broadcasters saw something to be true and declared it as such. Under Trebek, Jeopardy! exemplified the decent side of America—the side where people use their brains; rely on the same, unchanging set of facts; and celebrate wins while accepting losses with grace.
But Alex Trebek was not just a game show host. He was—and is—an inspiration. I’m not just speaking on behalf of the children who looked at the contestants and yearned for their own shot behind the lectern, almost getting face-to-face with Trebek himself. (I do relate to that thinking, even if I’m likely not smart enough to see those dreams come to fruition.)
I’m talking about Trebek’s courage and determination in light of his battle against pancreatic cancer. When he announced his diagnosis one-and-a-half years ago, he said, “Keep the faith and we’ll win.” With that, he gave hope to so many people—including myself, when I so desperately needed some hope. The messages and stories of people like Trebek are an ever-present reminder that life’s adversities and heartbreaks are no match for hope and strong will.
It would, however, be unwise to ignore those adversities and heartbreaks. Trebek had been very open about the pain with his treatment, both physical and emotional. That vulnerability is such a human trait to possess, but one must nevertheless muster up a certain amount of strength to be so honest about these struggles. Trebek’s courage did not come from an absence of fear; it came from the ability to acknowledge it and persist nevertheless.
And boy, did he persist. Trebek has always been a cultural icon but especially in his last few years. In his final months, he got the chance to oversee a tournament between the three greatest Jeopardy! players of all time. For a fan like me, it was a dream come true and lived up to the expectations—yet it was also bittersweet knowing that it would likely be Trebek’s swan song, even though it was glorious and heartwarming to see the contestants having the time of their lives while displaying their obvious gratitude for Trebek.
Even though Trebek is no longer there to test our knowledge of state capitals and 16th-century paintings, we can still remember the many lessons he taught us, both on and off the screen. Trebek was so much more than a game show host. He was the face behind that ideal of an America that relied on brains and facts. He was a beacon of hope, courage personified, and a reminder that even if life’s challenges can knock you down, you still need to get back up and push through to the end.
People have found inspiration in many different places. I never expected to find mine in a game show host, but sometimes the things that seem trivial can surprise us most. It’s odd how a simple game show can remind us of all that we can accomplish at our very best, but maybe that’s the way Trebek wanted it to be.