As We Mourn Alex Trebek, Consider the Beautiful Life Lesson in the Last 2 Episodes of Jeopardy Before He Died

My wife and I were talking about the passing of Alex Trebek, host of Jeopardy!, over the weekend, and we realized something incredible about the show.

It’s not just that Trebek was the star of something that weaved its way into our shared consciousness for so long, or that he did his job so steadily that it became a key part of other iconic media, some of it from decades ago.

For example, have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day? It’s 27 years old; there’s a key scene in which Bill Murray’s character watches Jeopardy! (The exclamation point is part of the show’s name.)

Or else, the 1980s sitcom, Cheers? There’s a classic episode in which one of the main characters gets on Jeopardy!

How about, White Men Can’t Jump? It’s from 1992; one of the big plot points has to do with a supporting character’s key goal in life: to appear on and win Jeopardy!

But there’s something much more than that.

By all accounts, Trebek was a decent, generous human being, and his stability as host was admirable, even after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and began the strenuous, sometimes painful, treatment that he hoped would extend his life.

Last week, viewers learned about something else that happened as a result of Trebek’s tenure.

On Thursday, the winner of the second-to-last Jeopardy! show that aired before Trebek’s death was Burt Thakur, 37, an engineer from Palm Springs, California. And at the end of the show, when Trebek asked Thakur if he had family or friends at home rooting him on, Thakur gave an emotional answer.

“Here’s a true story, man,” said Thakur, whom reports later said immigrated to the United States from India at age 8, and whose first languages were Hindi and Urdu. “I learned English because of you. My grandfather who raised me…I used to sit on his lap and listen to you every day. So, it’s a pretty special moment for me, man. Thank you very much.”

Thakur’s story clearly resonated with American immigrants and others around the world, who said they, too, learned English and U.S. culture by watching Jeopardy!

“That show most definitely accelerated that process, in realizing that there’s more than one way to express a thought or an intent,” said Korean-American comedian June Yoon, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 14 and improved his English by watching the show.

One of the things I love about this phenomenon, is simply that Trebek couldn’t have known the impact he was having–at least not in the beginning.

I wrote earlier this year about the odd experience of Carol Spinney, who played Big Bird on Sesame Street, and who had to rig a small television inside his giant suit to be able to move around.

One result, he later wrote, was that he was always watching himself from the outside–seeing “the same picture the viewer sees, not the world from the Bird’s point of view.”

But Trebek didn’t have that advantage. 

Instead, he simply did the work, show after show, from 1984 to this year, becoming, as one obituary put it, “an authoritative and unflappable fixture for millions of Americans who organized their weeknights around the program.”

He hosted more than 8,000 episodes–a record–and skipped only once in 36 years: April Fool’s Day in 1997, when Trebek and longtime Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak switched places.

Over time, of course, Trebek understood the show’s significance, and he experienced a kind of ubiquitous, low-key, calming fame. 

But it made me wonder about all the other families out there–children learning English, parents letting their kids watch Jeopardy! because it was arguably educational, and they could be confident it wouldn’t include content they didn’t want their kids exposed to.

That’s the key takeaway for me: the notion that if you show up, and you do your job each day, and you deliver consistent results–even on the days when it’s the hardest–your real legacy might be even greater than you imagine.

You might never know all the people whose lives you influence, or how. But dedication and consistency can be virtues, and they can pay off in ways you’ll never even know about.

Thursday’s champion, Thakur, was back on Friday’s show, which was the last one to air during Trebek’s lifetime.

He kept filming shows until as recently as two weeks ago, Jeopardy! said. His final episode will air on Christmas Day.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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