It shouldn't hurt this much when a stranger dies. After all, if you've never met someone how could you truly care for them? But Alex Trebek's passing on Sunday hit exceptionally hard. There was just something about the Jeopardy! host that was different than anyone else on television. He made loyal viewers feel like we knew him and that he cared about us. Despite never meeting in person, we were friends.
Trebek began hosting Jeopardy! in 1984 and in the 36 years that followed, no sane person ever wished for a replacement. Not only was he one of the smoothest hosts on television, he was also brilliant, classy and had a wry, sarcastic sense of humor. As Scott Van Pelt pointed out, Trebek made it look so easy and made his audience feel comfortable right from the start of every episode. His personality set the tone for the entire viewing experience.
I grew up in a Jeopardy! family. We watched often and, frankly, the show got us through some tough times. No matter what was happening in the world, we knew every night Trebek and his show were ready to provide us an escape. To this day I still watch and the thrill of getting answers correct hasn't dulled with one bit. When I visit my sister we often watch, and I love competing with her to see who'll get more correct answers.
My first memories of watching Trebek on television go back a long way. When I was three, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan. My father was an oral surgeon in the Navy and he was assigned to the island, which is roughly one-third the size of Rhode Island. We spent three years on that rock and had just two English language channels. One of them played the nightly episodes of Jeopardy!.
One summer, shortly before I turned six, I was running through a parking lot like a maniac (totally on brand) and lost my footing, falling knee-first into a pile of glass shards. As my family rushed me to the hospital my father worked at, I remember the worried faces on everyone around me. The cuts were deep and I needed major surgery to repair a severed patellar tendon, while there were also pieces of glass inside the knee that had to be cleaned out. Even at five years old, I knew that was bad news -- especially as a kid who loved sports more than anything.
As we sat in a room and waited for details from the doctors who would perform the operation, I vividly remember looking to my side and the Jeopardy! intro playing. I was still terrified of what lay ahead, but in the chaos of that moment the visual of Trebek opening the show provided some level of normalcy. Maybe it was a stupid thing to hang on to, but for some reason I felt like I was at home and everything would be OK.
That's who Trebek was. His greatest public achievement wasn't his seven Emmys (plus a lifetime achievement Emmy), the millions he made or being awarded the Order of Canada by his native land, it was becoming a safe harbor for his audience. We knew him. We cared about him. We loved him. In his 80 years on this planet he earned adoring admiration from millions. Our hearts broke when he announced a Stage IV cancer diagnosis in March of 2019. While terribly sad, his announcement was inspiring as he vowed to fight on, working on the show despite the debilitating disease. We watched in awe as he fought and still showed up to provide his viewers the same sense of security every weeknight.
On Sunday when the news of his passing broke, many were devastated. I was among them. Sure I never met Trebek, but when you allow someone into your home almost nightly for more than 30 years, they feel like family.
Millions of people welcomed Alex Trebek into their lives every week for almost 40 years. How many people can you say that about? His legacy will never be that of an entertainer, it will be that of a good friend we wish were still with us, and whose memory we will long cherish.