Getting it right the first time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tiny red buttons rest uneasily beneath the quivering fingertips of nine teen-agers, ready to be pushed at an instant's notice. The first-timers look frightened under the glare of the TV lights; those who have been here before stare intently at the quizmaster.

Then Mac McGarry, the avuncular, velvet-voiced host of "It's Academic," which starts its 25th season at 11:30 this morning on WJZ-Channel 13, tosses out a question: There are more than 5,800 miles of train track to cross along what railroad line that goes from Moscow to Vladivostock?

You can see the nine high school kids rifling through the flashcards in their brains as their classmates, parents and teachers hold their breath. In a half-second, one of them jabs at the red button and announces the answer: the Trans-Siberian.

For 30 minutes, the questions keep coming.

Most presidents of the United States are sworn into office in Washington, but what president was given the oath of office by his father at Plymouth, Vt., in 1923?

No one has a clue about this one. Who remembers Calvin Coolidge, right?

What 17th-century Dutch artist gave his name to the pop duo who recorded the opening theme song for the sitcom "Friends"? They practically trip over each other rushing to answer this one: The Rembrandts.

The sense of relief when an answer comes out right is almost palpable; the look of chagrin on a student's face when the answer is wrong could wither a rose. But the dominant emotion is annoyance -- the look of shock and then momentary disgust that registers on the face of a guy who actually knows Hannibal was the Carthaginian general who fought Rome during the second Punic War, but who pushed his button a split second after the girl on the other team.

That's the fate that is befalling the students from Salisbury's Parkside and Bel Air's C. Milton Wright today, as they fail to keep pace with a group of three whiz-kids from Linganore High School in Frederick County. Their faces keep saying, "I know this." Their fingers, unfortunately, just don't know it fast enough.

Linganore's lead grows to 60 points. But team captain Nick Fry, a four-year veteran of "It's Academic," knows better than to relax. "So much can happen in that fifth round," Nick says. "Your opponent can get the three visuals [worth 30 points each], and the lead's gone."

Nick, Nick, Nick. You think a lot can happen in one round? Try thinking back 25 years.

hTC Bell-bottoms have come and gone and come back (sort of). Peter Frampton has given way to Soul Asylum. The same man who gave us "Jaws" has since given us "Schindler's List."

But "It's Academic" is the same as it ever was.

Kids with brains

For 25 years, hundreds of Baltimore's best and brightest students have strutted their smarts on "It's Academic." Its alumni have gone on to become doctors and lawyers, post-office workers, poets and rock music critics, housewives and Army majors. For most, the hours they spent pressing those buzzers were a highlight of their high school years, a rare chance for the smart kids -- the non-jocks -- to carry their school colors onto the battlefield and grab a moment in the spotlight. For once, the cheerleaders were cheering for them.

"Growing up, you're the smart kid in the class, you don't fit in," says Patrick Curran, a member of the Archbishop Curley team in 1975 and '76. "In high school, your hobbies aren't everybody else's hobbies. This was something where you could show what you could do, and you could compete with other schools and show that you were good at what you did. To a 16-year-old kid, that was important."

For Jay Browne, who represented Poly in 1974 and 1975, the important thing was "just the idea of being on television when I was in high school. Usually the athletes, they get all the ink and the press and what-not. The kind of guys who weren't the biggest and the strongest and the baddest didn't get any ink."

True, "It's Academic" didn't change many lives, though Don Katz, a member of Northwestern's 1973 team, drew on his experiences with the show to become a five-time "Jeopardy!" champion. But most "It's Academic" alumni had fun competing and still have vivid memories of their appearance on the show.

A team reunion

Almost 20 years have passed since Tim Kulbicki, Patrick Curran and Kevin Clasing last sat down together.

In 1976, they were all students at Archbishop Curley High School in East Baltimore, sporting big hair, polyester sports jackets and plaid pants. But most importantly, they had quick trigger fingers and even quicker recall.

Which is what made them champions.

Tim, Pat and Kevin blew away the competition that year to emerge as Baltimore's "It's Academic" champions. Even two decades later, they can still remember the questions and subjects that took them to the top.

"We were lonely, and we read a lot," is how Mr. Curran remembers their qualifications for doing well on the show.

"I was the math expert, but merely by default," Mr. Clasing explains. "The team had a big flaw in the math area, and I filled in as best I could. But the one area I really knew a lot about was modern music."

His former teammates nod.

"They'd ask us a question like, 'Who's the bass player for the Rolling Stones?' " Mr. Clasing says, "and these other two guys would just turn their heads and stare at me."

"Wait a minute," shouts Mr. Curran, suddenly remembering his own moment of musical glory. "I got Nazareth."

"Yeah, and I almost died laughing," Mr. Clasing counters. "You guys didn't know any of that stuff. I mean, to Tim, modern music was post-Gregorian."

The three men, sharing memories over bottles of Snapple at the Rotunda on a recent morning, laugh heartily.

A lot of things have changed since 1976, not least of all them. They've lost some hair, maybe gained a little girth. And their identities are no longer defined by their ability to answer questions with speed and aplomb.

Patrick Curran, expert in English and history, is now a certified public accountant living in Harford County with his wife and three kids. Kevin Clasing, the lone junior on the team, is now an Annapolis lawyer living in Hunt Valley with his wife and 11-month-old daughter. Team captain Tim Kulbicki is now Father Tim, parish priest at St. Clement in Rosedale.

"Am I going to hear about this on Sunday!" Father Tim exclaims in mock horror at the thought of his parishioners seeing a picture of him from the polyester-laden mid-'70s. "I know I had big hair, and I was probably wearing an ugly suit, too!"

The thrill of victory

"It's Academic" shows are taped several weeks in advance, which means that the show pitting C. Milton Wright and Parkside against Linganore won't air until Dec. 2.

You'll have to watch the show to see who won. Suffice to say, the end of the game revealed yet another aspect of "It's Academic" that hasn't changed over the years:

How good it feels to win.

One girl drops her face into her hands, practically crying because she's so excited. "YES! YES!" screams the team captain who led his squad to victory, raising his arms in the air and slapping his lucky hat atop his head.

"That's usually how we end the big one," he explains later. "Last year, I rang in early on one question, I got it wrong, and we ended up losing in overtime. I was feeling bad for that one.

"This," he says with obvious relish, "is a little bit of redemption."

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