Past Georgia ‘Jeopardy!’ contestants mourn Alex Trebek

Alex Trebek’s death from pancreatic cancer has saddened fans around the world - especially former "Jeopardy!” players, many of whom live in Georgia.

“The news is absolutely gutting,” said Dhruv Gaur of Gainesville, the “Jeopardy!” 2019 college champ. He cited Trebek’s steadying personality for the show’s enduring success, calling him “someone who wouldn’t fade into the background but also not overshadow the game itself. I think the fact that many people looked at him as both a steady influence as well as an arbiter of truth also speak to his importance.”

In his final game during the “Tournament of Champions” last fall, Gaur didn’t know what the Final Jeopardy answer was so he wrote “What is we love you Alex!” and caused Trebek to choke up.

Over 36 years, Trebek hosted more than 8,200 shows with 15,000-plus contestants. He posed “answers” to contestants more than 450,000 times. If you tried to watch all his episodes consecutively without commercials, it would still take four months. The show under Trebek’s watch remained a ratings champion even as a heavier slice of the potential audience has shifted away from traditional television.

Trebek died at 80. He announced his diagnosis last year.

The show’s relevance hit new heights last year when controversial James Holzhauer made headlines chasing “Jeopardy!” records. This led to a prime-time champion of champions tournament earlier this year, a cherry on top to Trebek’s long tenure.

Trebek had been taping new episodes recently. Chamblee’s Mark Dawson, who won the Tournament of Champions in 2003 and earned more than $300,000 in 13 episodes over the years, said he had heard no talk about Trebek’s condition.

“We should all consider this last year with Alex to have been a gift, a blessing," Dawson said. "That he was able to continue all these months has been an illustration of the strength of character of the man, a dedication to his life’s work and to fans of the show.”

Dawson’s brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 and died within nine months. “I have some under understanding of what Alex went through because I was with my brother much of his last months,” he said. “It takes a helluva lot of fortitude to carry on as Alex did and with such a sense of aplomb and good nature.”

Soyia Ellison, assistant director of communications at the Carter Center and a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, competed on the show last year.

“In so many ways, Alex Trebek was ‘Jeopardy!.’ It was the thrill of a lifetime not just to be on the show but to share the same stage with him," Ellison said. "He was such a pro. I will miss his sly grin and the twinkle in his eye when he gently teased a contestant. It’s hard to imagine watching the show without him as the host.”

Adam Stone, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University, finished a distant third last year in a “Jeopardy!” game won by Holzhauer.

“He was authentic,” Stone said. “He was just like you see him on TV.” He recalled his wife, Julie, teasing him when Trebek rebuked him in that Trebek way by saying, 'Pay more attention to the category."

Julie Stone used to say that to him as well.

The only current game-show host who has longer tenure is 74-year-old Pat Sajak on “The Wheel of Fortune,” which usually airs in tandem with “Jeopardy!.” Locally, “Jeopardy!” airs on weekday evenings at 7:30 p.m. on WXIA-TV.

New Morning Consult in April, 2019, polled 2,200 Americans and found half of respondents said they couldn’t imagine watching “Jeopardy” without Trebek, who was more popular than Sajak, Steve Harvey of “Family Feud” and Drew Carey of “The Price is Right.” His net favorability was a whopping 69 percentage points compared to Sajak’s still very positive 58 percentage points.

“Every day for almost 40 years, millions of people would invite Alex into their homes and every day he’d be there to entertain and educate,” said Steven Grade, an Atlanta sports consultant who competed in the “Jeopardy” Tournament of Champions last year. “I’ve probably shared more dinners with him than anybody except maybe my parents and I know I’m not along in that.”

Seth Wilson, who won 12 games in a row on “Jeopardy” in 2016 and was a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia at the time, said Trebek is one of the few iconic figures left on TV, in part due to his longevity. He treasures the photo he got with Trebek.

“He was always very gracious with the contestants,” said Wilson, who is now an editor in Chicago. “I always tell people who ask me that he was collegial and a little stern, in a fun way like a favorite professor. My favorite moment of him is that, in my first episode, after we cut for the commercial break, he looked at me and said, 'Somebody came to play!”

Credit: Jeopsar

Credit: Jeopsar

When it comes to viewership, “Jeopardy” competes with “Wheel of Fortune” and “Family Feud,” the big three of game shows. “Jeopardy” season to date is behind “Family Feud” but ahead of “Wheel of Fortune.”

Trebek’s final episode will air on Christmas, said Sony, the producer of the show. He taped episodes through Thursday, October 29.