The trivia talents of six iSchool alumni—and a faculty member—catapulted them to one of America's most popular game shows, Jeopardy! Nanette Donohue (MS '03), Erin Hart (MS '19), Charlie Jorgenson (MS '12), Ana Palmer (MS '07), Becky Reisig (MS '07), Associate Professor Carol Tilley, and Clare Gaynor Willis (MS '10) recall their appearance on the show.
When were you on Jeopardy! and for how many episodes?
Donohue: January 2002, four episodes
Hart: February-March 2011, two episodes
Jorgenson: July 2019, three episodes
Palmer: December 2012, one episode
Reisig: June 2019, one episode
Tilley: April 2007, one episode
Willis: October 2007, one episode
How did you get selected for the show?
Donohue: I auditioned in Chicago during the summer of 2001, a couple of months before I moved to Champaign. I had to pass a written test and play a mock game with others who had passed the test.
Hart: I auditioned in Chicago my freshman year of high school. I did not advance at that time, but I made it the following year. Because I was a minor, Jeopardy! called my mom with the news first and arranged for the local news station to surprise me with the announcement in my calculus class.
Jorgenson: Before I eventually got "the call" to be on the show, I had auditioned four times.
Palmer: I took the online test twice and was called to audition in person both times. I didn't hear anything until August 2012, when I got "the call" telling me that my recording date in Los Angeles was on September 18, 2012.
Reisig: After trying to get on Jeopardy! for decades, I took the online test in 2017 and was invited to audition. At that point, they told me if I didn't hear from them in 18 months, I could try again. Two days before the end of my 18 months, long after I figured I wasn't getting on, they called me. I had three weeks to arrange things to get to Los Angeles for the taping.
Tilley: Sometime in early 2006, I saw an announcement on a library-related listserv that Jeopardy! would be in Indianapolis for testing and auditions. Having been a lifelong trivia geek and avid reader, I decided "Why not?!" The test wasn't as difficult as I anticipated, and I was invited to stay for taped auditions. While I was delighted to be in the show's pool of potential contestants, they use less than five percent of qualifying folks in a typical season. I had mostly given up hope of being selected to appear, but I got a call and was invited to come to Los Angeles in January 2007.
Willis: I did an online screener test and auditioned in Chicago on Navy Pier.
How much did you win?
Donohue: $53,030, and a trip to Hawaii
Hart: As a semifinalist on the teen tournament, I automatically won $10,000. I saved most of the money for college.
Jorgenson: $58,800 ($32,800 for the first win, $24,000 for the second win, and $2,000 for the second-place loss)
What was your strongest subject?
Donohue: Literature. Also pop culture stuff, especially anything related to pop music. My brain is full of useless information.
Hart: The Final Jeopardy in my first game was on American literature. English is my favorite subject (I ended up majoring in it), and I knew the answer, Edgar Allan Poe, right away. My sister said that sitting in the audience, she immediately thought, "Oh, Erin knows this."
Jorgenson: I would have assumed it would be something about literature or films, but my best category turned out to be "Italian Music Terms." I did, however, do fairly well in "American Writers" and "People Sexiest Man Alive Movie Team-Ups." Sadly, I wasn't able to run a category, but I'm relieved that I responded correctly to the "What are libraries?" question ("Evenings in the Stacks' galas, held in various communities, benefit local ones of these places.")
Palmer: My bachelor's degree is in history, so I thought history-related topics would be my strong suit. However, I missed quite a few questions, including a few that make me shake my head to this day.
Reisig: It turns out, it was "Fathers and Daughters." Shout out to my dad for making me an expert!
Tilley: I don't know that I had a strongest subject for the show: I did OK across categories. Getting the timing for the buzzer is really hard, and that ended up being my biggest failure. My second biggest failure? I joked that if any of the categories had to do with Charles Dickens, I was sunk. I've made it a personal goal to never read anything by Dickens (it's a weird, nonsensical goal). Unfortunately, Final Jeopardy involved a Dickens quote.
Willis: I did OK with Old Testament questions, which thrilled my paternal grandmother.
Have you always been a trivia buff?
Donohue: Yes! Growing up, one of our house rules was that nobody could come over to play until Jeopardy! was over. We wagered on Final Jeopardy, and you always have to answer in the form of a question.
Hart: I was on the quiz bowl team in high school, and I'm a regular pub trivia participant, frequently with one of my friends who was also on Jeopardy! when we were both in college. I love crossword puzzles and Sporcle quizzes. Recently I wrote and hosted a virtual trivia program for teens at my library.
Jorgenson: After appearing on Jeopardy!, I've gotten to "meet" a fair number of trivia buffs online, and compared to them, I'm just not that intense. I was a senior in high school when the Trebek-era Jeopardy! premiered, and Trivial Pursuit was still culturally a hot item. Both of those outlets rewarded my general knowledge of middlebrow subjects.
Palmer: In eighth grade, my best friend predicted that I would one day be on Jeopardy! She was right.
Reisig: Always. I was captain of my Knowledge Bowl team for three years in high school. When we could hang out in bars and restaurants, I was the anchor of my work's Geeks Who Drink team. I really miss that a lot and hope I can get the band back together when we can all do normal things again.
Tilley: Yes! I was four when a family friend gifted me a set of a 1960s Ladies Home Journal children's encyclopedia, and that set me on a long path of trivia geekery. For Christmas when I was six, I received my first copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, and the following year I was given my first World Almanac and Book of Facts. When I wasn't buying comics and paperback cartoon collections as a kid, I bought trivia compendiums.
Willis: Absolutely. I still love trivia. I would play Jeopardy! again with no cameras and no money at stake all day every day if I could.
Anything else you'd like to add about your Jeopardy! experience:
Donohue: I was an iSchool student when I appeared on Jeopardy!, and I used some of my winnings to support myself during grad school. Also, in true librarian fashion, I researched buzzer techniques before I went on the show. It ended up being very helpful!
Hart: People watching the show at home see Alex Trebek and Johnny Gilbert, but they don't see all the wonderful behind-the-scenes staff who make the show possible. Pretty much every Jeopardy! contestant will sing the praises of the contestant coordinators. They're the ones who run auditions and select contestants and, during taping, go over the rules, run the practice games, and give you pep talks during commercial breaks.
Jorgenson: If you're still in the contestant pool at lunchtime, you’re escorted to the commissary and given a couple of vouchers. After buying my meal, I had so much credit left that I took the cashier's suggestion and stocked up on candy bars. Upon returning to the seating area, I saw that apparently no other contestants were given that advice. On the one hand, that was slightly embarrassing; on the other hand, well, free candy bars.
Palmer: It was wonderful, and I wish I could do it again. I am glad I got the chance to do it. It was a lifelong dream, and it gives me some extra credibility with my students.
Reisig: You tape your episode(s) and then they don’t air for three months. Everyone was asking me if I had to play against James Holzhauer, and I couldn’t say a word because I was under an NDA until my episode aired. I got very good at saying "I can neither confirm nor deny. . . ." A lot of Jeopardy! is down to luck. If you're lucky enough to be on a game when you are good at the categories, great! If the categories are against you, it can be a bad day. I had been telling everyone as soon as I knew I was going to be on the show,"“If I get Opera, I’m screwed"—and then I got Opera.
Tilley: Even though I didn’t win anything, I had a great time. I'm still in touch with the person who beat me and went on to win a couple more games. She's a producer for the Rachel Maddow Show, and we often meet up for a meal when I'm in NYC. My dad was super excited that I got to audition for the show, but unfortunately, he died in May 2006, so he didn't get to see my appearance.
Willis: My maternal grandmother was an enormous Jeopardy! fan, so it was a huge thrill for her when she heard that I was going to be on the show. She got to see my episode air in October 2007, and we had several fun conversations about how it went. In November 2007, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, passing away just after Thanksgiving. I served for several years on the Young Professionals Board of the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, raising money and awareness for pancreatic cancer early detection research. I'm grateful for everything that Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek did to raise the profile of pancreatic cancer and help people understand the symptoms.