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The beloved face of ‘Jeopardy!’ has died. Inside the life of Alex Trebek

Night after night, he entered viewers’ homes, encouraging and validating a love of learning.

In this April 30, 2017, file photo, Alex Trebek speaks at the 44th annual Daytime Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Center in Pasadena, Calif.
In this April 30, 2017, file photo, Alex Trebek speaks at the 44th annual Daytime Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Center in Pasadena, Calif. Trebek died on Nov. 8, 2020 at the age of 80.
Chris Pizzello, Invision

Night after night, he entered viewers’ homes, encouraging and validating a love of learning. After 36 years of delivering trivia in the form of an answer, Alex Trebek, the beloved host of “Jeopardy!” has died at the age of 80.

“‘Jeopardy!’ is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends,” the show shared in a message Sunday morning. “Thank you, Alex.”

In 2019, Trebek announced to fans worldwide that he had advanced pancreatic cancer. Over the past year and a half, as he underwent treatment, he carried on in his role as “Jeopardy!” host. It wasn’t a battle, so to speak. In his memoir, published this year, Trebek said he doesn’t like using the terms “battling” and “fighting” when it comes to cancer because it implies there are winners and losers.

“You get treatment and you get better. Or you don’t. And neither outcome is an indication of your strength as a person,” he wrote. “Yet I still believe in the will to live. I believe in positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope, and I certainly believe in the power of prayer.”

Some days, Trebek struggled to make it to production meetings. Sometimes, in-between taping “Jeopardy!” episodes, he’d be in a great deal of pain. But the minute he would step onto the “Jeopardy!” set, he felt like himself.

“That passion for his work — it’s a kind of calling,” Trebek’s second wife, Jean Trebek, wrote in an essay earlier this year. “He truly looks forward to getting to the studio at 5:45 a.m.— so he can do several episodes in a single day. It rejuvenates him.

“It rejuvenates me as well,” she continued. “With each passing day, I have found so much to be grateful for. Alex’s work. Our kids, our friends, a sunset, a flower blooming in our garden. This didn’t have to be a death sentence. It could be a life sentence. A constant reminder of how precious life is. The smallest things that I once took for granted now carry more meaning. I think that is how God keeps us in the moment. He focuses us with grace.”

Trebek considered Jean to be his soulmate. The couple, which had a 24-year age difference, got married in 1990. They have two children together, Emily and Matthew.

“With Jean it just happened. … I wasn’t looking for love,” Trebek wrote. “But with Jean, I recognized at a gut level that here was someone who was going to complete me as a human being.”

Born July 22, 1940, Trebek grew up in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, and was the son of George Edward Terebeychuk, a Ukrainian immigrant, and Lucille Lagace, a French Canadian. Trebek’s father earned money to Canada primarily through playing the violin at weddings and events, according to Trebek’s memoir.

Trebek grew up relatively poor. In high school, he applied for a military program that would pay for his college. He was accepted and sent to the Royal Canadian Air Force military academy college in Quebec, where he lasted three days.

Following two days of getting hazed by senior cadets, the final straw came when they were going to cut Trebek’s hair — “I had a good head of hair,” he wrote.

After dropping out of military school, Trebek went back to his high school for grade 13 — a transition year similar to the first year of college. During this time, he tried to get his first job in radio, with his main qualification being that he had won a public-speaking contest in third grade.

“I don’t know why that stuck with me, but I figured, ‘You speak well, so maybe you could announce,’ Trebek recalled.

After some rejections, Trebek eventually got a part-time job with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He received a full-time job while completing his degree at the University of Ottawa. He then went on to host the Canadian music show “Music Hop” and the high school quiz show “Reach for the Top” — the show where he first learned the importance of encouraging contestants and keeping them from getting flustered when they make a mistake.

“I’m not doing this simply to be kind. I’m doing it because the more competitive contestants are, the better it is for the game,” Trebek wrote. “I want to keep everyone in contention. I want them to realize that it was a momentary lapse, and we all have those. … It’s an approach I have developed over time, and it all began on ‘Reach for the Top.’”

After 12 years with the CBC, Trebek moved to America in 1973 to host the NBC game show “The Wizard of Odds.” Although short-lived, the show would end up kicking off an extensive game show career for Trebek in the United States — a career that secured the TV figure as an American icon.

Although he was the face of “Jeopardy!” Trebek insisted on being referred to as the host rather than the star. He viewed the real stars of the show to be the contestants and the show’s writers.

“You could replace me as the host of the show with anybody and it would likely be just as popular,” he wrote. “After 36 years with me, it might even be more popular.”

Some of Trebek’s favorite memories and contestants on “Jeopardy!” included the 2004 “Celebrity Jeopardy!” game featuring Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan and Tucker Carlson; Dana Venator, a competitor in the 1987 teen tournament who told Trebek she was learning how to play the bagpipes and would go deep into the woods behind her house to practice so as not to disturb her neighbors; and Cindy Stowell, who had stage 4 colon cancer during her six-game run on the show in 2016.

“I admire how she didn’t want to make a big deal about her illness,” Trebek wrote. “And how she didn’t let it keep her from achieving her dreams.”

A big reason for the longevity and success of “Jeopardy!” is that viewers are always learning something new from the show and getting value out of it, Trebek said.

“The show has become part of the fabric of American life,” Trebek wrote. “At some point — and it occurred slowly over the years — we made the transition from just being an enjoyable quiz show to being part of your daily life.”

Trebek — who once wrote that he had come to terms with his illness and was grateful for his life — firmly believed that “Jeopardy!” would outlive him.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” he wrote. “One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is, ‘He was taken from us too soon.’ … I’ve lived a good, full life.”

“And ‘Jeopardy!’ will be just fine. It doesn’t matter who’s the host,” he continued. “I think ‘Jeopardy!’ can go on forever.”