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Alex Trebek: a hero to me and many others | COMMENTARY

Sathvik Namburar, right, poses with Alex Trebek. Mr. Namburar appeared as a contestant on 'Jeopardy!' in August 2019.
Sathvik Namburar, right, poses with Alex Trebek. Mr. Namburar appeared as a contestant on 'Jeopardy!' in August 2019.

It has long been said that we should never meet our heroes in person because they will inevitably disappoint us. Alex Trebek was the exception to this rule.

He appeared on our television screens every weeknight for the past 36 years, the warm-hearted and reassuring presence who guided contestants through the game show “Jeopardy!” With his Canadian-inflected “Oh no, sorry” when a contestant was incorrect and his joy when a player earned a big payday; in many ways he became a larger figure than the show itself.

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Mr. Trebek, who died Sunday at age 80, made it glamorous to be knowledgeable simply for knowledge’s sake. When I was in school, I would watch “Jeopardy!” and see how my interest in “useless trivia” was not so necessarily useless after all. And in my teenage mind, it gave the show even more credibility to have a host as suave as Mr. Trebek. It became my ardent desire to meet him, and so, I applied to be a contestant.

I was chosen to compete on “Jeopardy!” in August 2019. The last year of the show was unlike the first 35, as Mr. Trebek had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in March of 2019. I had read news stories of Mr. Trebek writhing in pain between episodes, vomiting due to his chemotherapy drugs. As I prepared for my episode to be taped, I was unsure how healthy Mr. Trebek would be and whether he would even be able to host the show.

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On the day of my taping, I still did not know what to expect. One-by-one, my fellow contestants and I were introduced. Then he strode onto the stage from behind a curtain, his suit tailored as always, his makeup and hair impeccable. He looked like himself, ready to command the show.

But all was not well. He stumbled over words, and during the contestant interview session I could see that his hair was not his own. Still, he persisted, and seeing his struggle from up close gave me strength. Despite trailing for much of the game, I was somehow able to win. Mr. Trebek’s example served as the timely and necessary reminder that with effort and focus, nearly any difficulty can be overcome. As I told my family members after the game, he deserves much of the credit for inspiring me onward to victory.

As a medical student, I have had many interactions with people who have been diagnosed with cancer. I have long admired their will to live and to persevere, and Mr. Trebek was certainly no exception.

Once he was diagnosed with cancer, he could have left “Jeopardy!” to enjoy a most deserved retirement and to be feted for his accomplishments. Instead, he chose the opposite approach, returning to work every week regardless of the difficulty. Because of this decision, he was one of my heroes and was undoubtedly a hero to so many others.

During my taping, Mr. Trebek used each break to interact with the studio audience. He knew that many audience members had traveled significant distances to watch a “Jeopardy!” taping, and he knew that his presence was a primary reason for the show’s popularity.

One audience member asked Mr. Trebek about what lessons he had taken from his cancer diagnosis and his ensuing treatment. I expected Mr. Trebek to discuss the struggle of living with cancer.

Instead, he replied with one word: “Kindness,” he said.

He told the audience about how so many people had shown him uncommon decency, writing letters of support and offering to help him in ways both mundane and extraordinary. The kindness he had been shown gave him hope for the future, he concluded.

That is Mr. Trebek’s greatest legacy. He was a kind man, a decent man who worked hard and never drew attention to himself. He had been diagnosed with a terrible disease, and he fought it bravely. He was a celebrity, but he made Jeopardy! contestants and audience members feel welcomed and special.

I will forever be grateful to have met Alex Trebek.

Sathvik Namburar is a medical student at Dartmouth College, and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University. His email is sathvik.r.namburar.med@dartmouth.edu.

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