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Who is Alex Trebek? A man we can learn from

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek shares cancer update, March 2020. |

Alex Trebek, longtime host for the game show Jeopardy, died Nov. 8 after a long struggle with cancer. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson said in a farewell tweet that he was the “patron saint of geeks.” 

And while I might not go that far, there’s a reason why his passing is being mourned by so many.

Trebek was a star, no question: He hosted Jeopardy for 37 years, or about 8,200 episodes — a mark that cemented him in the Guinness Book of World Records. (In truth, he landed the record way back in 2014, after recording his mere 6,829th.) He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and earned seven Emmy awards for his hosting. Contestants have peppered Trebek with inspirational stories lately, telling him how much he’s meant to them. Television audiences saw the latest on Nov. 5, just days before his passing.

We could tick of a litany of reasons why Trebek excelled in what he did: His voice, his calm self-assurance, his kindly attitude toward contestants. But here’s the real secret to Trebek’s long, long career: 

He never made it about himself.

“You have to set your ego aside,” he told Vulture in 2018. “If you want to be a good host, you have to figure out a way to get the contestants to — as in the old television commercial about the military — ‘be all you can be.’ Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association, I do well.”

In 2012, Trebek said, “I’m introduced as the host of Jeopardy, not the star. My job is to provide the atmosphere and assistance to the contestants to get them to perform at their very best.” 

Trebek’s unassuming polish runs counter to what much of the culture seems to prize. Would-be creators and entertainers are, I think, encouraged to relentlessly promote themselves: That’s how wanna-be celebrities push their way into the spotlight and, who knows, snag their very own reality show.

I can’t imagine Trebek starring in a reality show — even though, toward the end, he was as real as it gets. He’d post videos and do interviews about his struggles with cancer: The pain that sent him sometimes backstage to cry in agony, the severe depression it triggered, the times when he was ready to simply move on. 

But he did move on, with unfailing grace and class.

“Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did,” wrote former Jeopardy champion (and all-time earnings leader) Ken Jennings wrote in a post. “He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him.” 

Deeply decent. It’s not a compliment we hear much now. Perhaps, in some circles, it wouldn’t even be compliment at all. But maybe to be deeply decent is one of the highest honors we could have chalked up on our tombstones — and one we should encourage our children to pursue.

Culture prizes fame. It praises those who, in some respects, praise themselves. But that’s not God’s way. He doesn’t call all of us to be rich or famous or, frankly, even successful. He encourages us to be deeply decent. To give to others. To support and encourage. To remember, always, that it’s not about us: It’s about God, and showing as much of God’s love to the people around us as we can.

I don’t know where Trebek was spiritually at the end of his life. But I do know he was an incredible philanthropist, giving millions of dollars to World Vision Canada, United Service Organizations and a host of others. We know, from the streams of eulogies we’ve seen over the last few days, how supportive and encouraging he was. He inspired millions not because he was famous, but because he so gracefully deflected that fame, pointing to the contestants on Jeopardy instead.

Trebek’s job, he felt, was to make other people successful. And in so doing, he found success himself. 

That’s a powerful lesson: One we can teach our kids. One that, perhaps, we could learn ourselves. 

Paul Asay is a writer and culture analyst for Focus on the Family’s Plugged In.

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