Alex Trebek told Kayla Kahlor he had some good days and many bad days during his battle with stage four pancreatic cancer. The day he met her and the other college championship contestants was, as he told her, a good day.
Despite the struggle he endured, he made a point to validate the nerves the 20-year-old UF chemistry junior felt as she gripped a buzzer in her hand, and he congratulated each of the College Championship competitors individually.
“I feel like he was everyone’s grandpa figure,” she said. “It felt like I had known him before that.”
For 37 seasons of “Jeopardy!,” Trebek turned bad days into good days for families, fans and trivia fanatics across the globe.
But on Nov. 8, the laughter and love Trebek brought to the stage became legacy.
Trebek, the legendary host of “Jeopardy!” and holder of the Guiness World Record for most episodes of a game show hosted by the same presenter, died at his Los Angeles home with his family by his side at age 80. Three UF students — Ernst Bell, Brian Johnson and Kayla Kalhor — have competed on the “Jeopardy!” College Championships.
While Kalhor sat in the basement of Marston Science Library last winter, her phone began to vibrate by her side, she said. She quickly silenced it and planned to return to her studies — until she saw the Los Angeles area code.
She scaled the stairs leading up to the ground floor, pushed through the glass doors and plopped into a seat by a table outside. Kalhor called back and secured her place in the 36th season of the Jeopardy! College Championship.
After being a fan of the show since high school, Kalhlor had decided to take the online qualifying test. After passing, she moved on to the next round of the audition process: a second written test and interview in St. Louis.
“They picked 15 of us from that, and I didn’t think I’d get it at all,” she said. “I guess I managed to hide the anxiety well enough that they liked me.”
Her nerves followed her on the plane ride to LA, where she said she listened to hours of trivia podcasts miles in the sky. When she stepped onto the stage to film the first show, a matter-of-fact phrase and a cool smile helped to settle her anxious mind. “I used to have hair like yours,” Trebek told her, referencing the crown of chestnut curls that used to adorn his head.
She watched the white-haired host send witty one-liners to crew members, who laughed along with their friend. All the while, Trebek knew his serious state of his cancer.
Months later, Kalhor still talks to the other 14 competitors from her season in a “very active” group chat, she said. On Nov. 8, the messages from the cross-national teens were particularly solemn.
Kalhor first saw the news of Trebek’s passing in a text, she said, and she said the world stood still.
“My heart just dropped,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything for a few days, but I’m glad he’s not suffering anymore. He really put all of himself into this, and it would have been so easy for him to just take time off for himself, but he just kept going because he knew so many people cared about the show, and he also cared about the show so much.”
Flashback to 1992, when Trebek’s hair matched Kalhor’s curls, and potential competitors sent in postcards to apply.
Then-UF-economics-senior Ernst Bell was a repository of random knowledge — something his mother noticed when her family would come together at 7:30 p.m. to watch “Jeopardy!” together. As a surprise, she sent a postcard with her son’s information, and he was randomly picked to audition for the show.
The now-50-year-old said he auditioned twice for the show. The first time, he passed a test of 50 Final Jeopardy questions, but was cut after his audition in Orlando.
The next year, he said his mother once again submitted a secret letter — and Bell passed the test for a second time. He auditioned in 1992 in New Orleans and waited weeks to hear a response.
One morning, one of Bell’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers shoved a thick Fedex letter through the crack between his bedroom door and the floor, he said. Bell scooped up the letter and tore it open.
“You’ve been selected,” the letter from “Jeopardy!” read.
“So, of course, I went bonkers, called my parents and showed all my fraternity brothers,” he said. “It was very cool.”
The show’s producers paid for a flight to LA, where Bell met the other competitors — and Rodney Dangerfield — in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton hotel, he said. After taking pictures and introducing himself to the others, it was time for the troupe of teens and twenty-somethings to make their way to the studio.
“I felt amazing,” he said. “And it all happened so fast: you’re in the green room waiting, and I wasn’t in the first game. The longer you’re in there, you get nervous.”
However, like Kahlor, he said the smile from a stranger who felt like an old friend leveled his nerves.
“He [Trebek] made you feel like, even though he sees thousands of people and contestants, he knows you,” he said. “He’s just the consummate professional.”
After the first round, Bell came out on top, winning $14,201 and two Daily Doubles. He was a semifinalist and won $5,000 — money he then spent on UF law school.
Despite missing spring break to be on the show, Bell said it was the highlight of his senior year.
Today, Bell works as the vice president and the associate general counsel of Regency Centers in Jacksonville, Florida, and is a father to three. He is reminded of his time on the show every time he calls out answers to the television, he said, but Trebek’s death brought him back to the day he stood on the stage before an onlooking studio audience.
He said he feels like the success of “Jeopardy!” champions comes first from hard work, but secondly, from the confidence Trebek gives them.
“He brings out the best in you,” Bell said. “If you can be on Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek, you’ve made it intellectually in America, which is ironic because he’s Candian, but because he’s the like the gold standard for intellectual achievement.”
While Bell reminisced on the past, Kalhor said Trebek’s death made her wonder about the future.
“It’s crazy to think about the new college tournament kids,” she said. “Whenever they start filming again and with whoever the new host is, they won’t get to meet Alex. It just won’t be the same.”