Last week I wrote about a man who represents America at its worst — soon-to-be-former president Donald Trump — so this week I am writing about someone who represents America at its best: Alex Trebek.
Before you start typing an admonitory email, I am well aware that Trebek was Canadian-born and -bred. What part this played in his character I can’t say, although he does seem to fit the “polite Canadians” stereotype that people seem happy to attribute to us. However, while he achieved success in his home and native land, it was in America that he found his greatest success, and he (rightly) repaid that kindness by becoming a citizen of the country that gave him so much opportunity and reward.
(As an aside, I don’t judge any Canadians who leave our shores for fame, fortune, glory, happiness, or anything else in another country. And I don’t blame Trebek for deciding the grass was greener on the other side of the border when it came to game shows. Even as a child, I noted the disparity between Canadian game shows — with their low budget production values and ecstatic contestants thrilled to win a fridge as a grand prize — and glitzy American shows, which gave away cars, boats, luxury vacations to places I’d never heard of, and other pricey prizes with reckless abandon.)
Being as I am a fount of useless trivia knowledge, Jeopardy! was always a show that I was perfectly happy to spend a half-hour with if I chanced upon it while channel surfing. Trebek was also a part of my life, a reassuring presence who could always be counted upon to be erudite, graceful, self-effacing, quick-witted, and friendly. Unlike many other game show hosts, he was never glib, loud, in-your-face, or crude. He insisted from the start that he be introduced as the host — not the star — of the show, reasoning that the true stars were the contestants and the pursuit of knowledge.
Also — and here is a fun fact — in a nod to his Canadian roots, he insisted that every game of Jeopardy! include at least one Canada-related questions. I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but he always seemed just a tiny bit happier than usual when contestants (99 per cent of whom are American) got those questions right, and a smidge more disappointed when they got them wrong.
When I heard that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I hoped against hope that he would be one of the ones who beat it. When news came that he had passed away, my first thought was “I live in a world without Alex Trebek in it anymore,” and I cried a little, as if I had lost a friend.
The truth is that the world needs more Alex Trebek, or at least more people like him. People who are kind, and thoughtful, and who share their good fortune with others (Trebek gave millions of dollars and a good deal of his time to charitable causes that make the world a better place). People who celebrate knowledge, who are curious and inquisitive and outward-looking, who never stop learning or wanting to learn. People who take pleasure in the success of others, cheer on those who did their best, and console those who had a bad day.
People, in short, who realize they have the power and ability to change the lives of others for the better, and do just that, in ways big and small. In his autobiography The Answer Is … Reflections on My Life, Trebek talks about his sponsorship of a young girl through World Vision, and says he was asked if he could donate $100 extra for a Christmas gift for her. “I got a notice that they bought a mattress for the girl [and] included a photo of her hugging her new mattress. We can make differences in simple ways and significant ways that don’t cost too much.”
America at its best? Alex Trebek is humanity at its best. Rest in peace, Alex, and thank you for giving us all so much.