Like Rocky, all Meghan Winch ever wanted to do was go the distance — not in the boxing ring, but on Jeopardy!
Her goal was to meet the greatest game-show host of all time, Alex Trebek, and to stay in the standings long enough to make it to the final round.
And in 2016, she did. The South Philadelphian, like Rocky, did not win her battle, but she did get to meet Trebek when he sneaked up behind her on a commercial break.
“I was getting my microphone adjusted and I looked up at the monitor and Alex was right behind me and I yelped with surprise like a dog whose foot had been stepped on,” Winch, 36, said. “And he just put his arm around me and said, ‘Oh, Meghan, my lassie,’ and put me right at ease like the pro he was.”
Like many Philadelphians, Winch grew up watching Jeopardy! at 7 p.m. on 6ABC with her family and continued the tradition as an adult. Of the top 25 markets in the country, Jeopardy! delivers its highest ratings in the Philadelphia area, according to 6ABC.
And so, Trebek’s death Sunday at the age of 80 after a battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer not only changes the landscape of television as we know it but also the rituals we created around him within our own homes. He was a welcomed guest at our dinner tables and in our family debates; he made us feel smart at times we felt as if we didn’t know anything; and he made us interested in things we never knew we wanted to know.
Sozi Tulante, an attorney who served as Philadelphia’s city solicitor from 2016 to 2018, began watching Jeopardy! when he was 10, two years after his family immigrated to North Philly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Jeopardy! was the gateway drug into me feeling comfortable about learning and knowing stuff," Tulante, 45, of West Philly, said. "It was my way to leave my little segregated neighborhood. I thought maybe one day I could be on Jeopardy!, but there were never any Africans or Black people on there when I watched it, so I just thought it was not something we did.”
But in November 2001, shortly before graduating from Harvard Law School, Tulante achieved his dream when he became a contestant on Jeopardy! He wore a necklace of cowrie shells on the show as a nod to his African heritage.
The necklace “expressed the pride I felt for my culture and my heritage to be on a stage like Jeopardy! " said Tulante. “It was like, ‘Look! I’m here in this capacity as a proud African to show that we know this random stuff too!’ When my family saw it they lost their minds.”
To Tulante (who lost during Final Jeopardy), Trebek was a national version of beloved 6ABC anchor Jim Gardner. There was a warmth and familiarity about him that somehow felt personal to everyone.
Bernie Prazenica, president and general manager of 6ABC, said in a statement that Trebek was a gentleman with a genuine respect for Jeopardy! viewers.
“Alex Trebek was as much a part of 6ABC as the theme music to Action News. He’s been our ‘rock’ at 7 p.m. for decades and we really thought of him as ‘one of us,’” Prazenica said. “Each time he visited us at the station he stayed for hours to talk with EVERY employee, take pictures, and sign autographs.”
Mike Monsell, vice president of marketing at 6ABC, once took Trebek to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a promo shoot. Monsell said every conversation he had with the game-show host was thoughtful and insightful.
“We have hosted many national celebrities at 6ABC. But no one — no one, ever stirred up the excitement of our employees like Alex Trebek,” Monsell said in a statement. “He is universally beloved.”
And nothing stirred up the Jeopardy! love locally like when Trebek would drop a Philly question. From Gritty to hitchBOT and from Reading Terminal Market to the Philadelphia Eagles, Philly answers seemed to pop up all the time on the show.
Just last week, an epically flubbed answer about what sandwich John’s Roast Pork is famous for made the rounds on Philly social media.
“I don’t know if it’s confirmation bias or what, but it does feel like there are a lot of Philly questions,” Winch said. “We’ve got a lot of weirdos in this city, and to get on Jeopardy! you have to be a little weird. Quirkiness and individuality feels like a natural fit.”
Camille Tomlin, 41, of Olney, who grew up watching Jeopardy! with her dad, once attended a taping of the show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the late ’90s or early 2000s. She said that during breaks, Trebek took questions from the audience and hinted about why he had a soft spot for Philly.
“He said (paraphrasing), there are many parks around the city, every neighborhood has one and you don’t have to go far to get in nature,” Tomlin said. “He mentioned NYC having the large Central Park but we had many Central Parks.”
But why do people from Philly — a city that tends to question all things highbrow and all men in suits — love Jeopardy! so much?
Jason Peters, a 25-year-old freelance writer who lives in Point Breeze and created a Jeopardy! drinking game with his roommates involving Citywide Specials, believes it’s because Philly loves a good competition, and we don’t suffer fools lightly.
“Philly’s connection to it might come from the competitive nature of Jeopardy!" Peters said. “Trebek’s attitude toward corniness and wrong answers is very similar to Philadelphia’s attitude toward corniness and wrong answers.”
Tulante agreed, noting that what Philadelphians love about the show may be the answers that people get wrong or don’t know, such as when there was a category about football in 2018 and not a single contestant even buzzed in to answer any of the questions.
“I would say 1.5 million people in Philadelphia felt like they could be on Jeopardy! after that,” Tulante said. “Many of the people on the show know about esoteric things but not popular culture or football, and in Philly, that’s a crime against humanity.”
Elisabeth Yucis, 41, of Collingswood, was a semifinalist on the first Teachers Tournament in 2011, when she was teaching at the School of the Future in Parkside and living in South Philly. She held a watch party for her first episode at Watkins Drinkery and got married three days after it aired.
She thinks Philadelphians are drawn to Jeopardy! because it’s a show where underdogs can succeed and you don’t need a fancy cable package to enjoy it.
“You can have any job, you can be from any walk of life, you can have a doctorate or very little formal education, anyone can go on Jeopardy!, and in that way it’s a truly democratic process," she said. “And, of course, Philadelphians love it because we’re the birthplace of democracy.”
For all of those who had a chance to meet Trebek, they said his kindness, charisma, and familiarity were as real in person as they came across on TV.