‘Jeopardy!’ winner from Bonita recalls Alex Trebek: ‘He always thought the contestants were the stars’

By Louis Berney
 |  Special to the Daily News

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The thing that struck Claire Sattler most about Alex Trebek was his humility.

“Alex Trebek was a really genuine person,” she said this week.

“He was so fun and friendly and humble and funny. He really is the person you see on TV, but without any of the ‘diva’ that you expect such a personality to have.“

Trebek, the immensely popular and respected host of the TV game show, “Jeopardy!,” died Sunday at age 80 after almost four decades of listening to contestants provide the correct questions to answers — a unique “Jeopardy!” conceit — that were flashed on a big game board on the show.

Sattler, one of those former contestants, is a 19-year-old Bonita Springs resident and a sophomore at Yale University. She not only competed in a Jeopardy! Teen Tournament two years ago, she wound up winning the event and the $100,000 prize that accompanied it.

More: ‘Jeopardy!’: Bonita Springs teen wins, heads to finals for annual Teen Tournament

An avid “Jeopardy” fan since about the age of 6, Sattler said many viewers believe the show “will never be the same without Alex. But I think the show will go on.”

She called Trebek “a national icon, one of the most revered, trusted figures in our country.”

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‘Jeopardy!’ pays tribute to Alex Trebek first episode after his death

The day after Alex Trebek’s death, “Jeopardy!” aired a pretaped episode with the host and opened with a tribute to him from his executive producer.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t respect Alex Trebek, even now when our country is so divided,” Sattler said.

She believes Trebek himself would want the show to continue: “I don’t think he would have wanted the show to die with him.”

A double-major at Yale (biomedical engineering and theater and performance studies), Sattler is at home in Bonita Springs taking courses at Yale online this semester because of university policy during the coronavirus. She will return to the New Haven, Connecticut, campus for the spring semester.    

Sattler said one of the attributes that surprised her most about Trebek during the two days of shooting four episodes in Culver City, California in 2018, was “how down-to-earth he was.”

“He takes his work seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously,” she added. “He has self-deprecating humor.”

The “Jeopardy!” host also had a way of putting angst-ridden contestants at ease. She recalls sitting in the audience during a semi-final taping in which she was not involved.

Sattler had only aspired to make it past the first round — “I didn’t want to lose to a (high school) freshman” — but now knew she was headed for the finals. She was sitting all alone, not allowed to be near anyone else or let on that she was a finalist.

More: Alex Trebek dead at 80: Why pancreatic cancer is so deadly

“I was freaking out,” Sattler remembers, when, during a commercial break, Trebek wandered among the audience asking if anyone had questions about the show.

“Someone asked, ‘When was the last time you were in a fist fight,’” Sattler recalled. “And without a thought, he said, ‘In about 15 seconds from now. Put your fists up.’ He was 78. It gave me a sigh of relief. He made me feel comfortable. ‘I’m going to be OK now.’ I thought. ‘I’m in the hands of Alex Trebek. I don’t have anything to fear.’ ”

Trebek also never tried to steal the spotlight from the contestants, she added: “He always thought the contestants were the stars.”

She also admired Trebek’s belief in the value of diversity. “He was excited,” she said, that her finals competition was all female, something unusual for the show.

“He said it was awesome we had three girls in the finals,” said Sattler. “He cared so much about gender equality.”

Trebek also was cheered by the fact that the show had so many people of color as contestants.

After she won her tournament, Sattler said, Trebek turned to the audience, full of contestant parents, and said, “ ‘You’ve raised some great kids. I hope you appreciate that.’ And he started to tear up, he choked up. He really did care that much about contestants.”

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