Around the margins, a darker story blooms. Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario, in 1940, to Ukrainian immigrants — warm, loving people, if ill-suited for each other. His father drank. Trebek’s early years were full of poverty, instability and illness, but he presents them with his typical cloudless beneficence: “I don’t have a lot of ghosts. I don’t have any bad memories that affect my life. It’s all good.” When he was 7, he fell into a frozen lake and became afflicted with painful rheumatism. For 12 years he’d wake crying in the night until suddenly the pain disappeared. “Go figure,” he shrugs.
Young Trebek had a rebellious streak. He clashed with the nuns at school and bounced between jobs. He quit military college when he heard that buzz cuts were mandatory. “I had a good head of hair — a sort of pompadour with a ducktail in the back,” he writes. (Photographic evidence is provided.) “I’d be damned if I was going to let them shave it off.”
Trebek might have inspired dread in his teachers and early employers, but he discovered that his real talent was in projecting calm, in allowing others to shine. As a host, it has been his proudest quality — his ability to buoy an anxious contestant through tone alone.
Facts themselves can confer steadiness. A small aside: I took to “Jeopardy!” early, and in high school had a weird, cursory career competing in televised trivia contests. My teammates and I — immigrants all, as it happened — glutted ourselves on dates and data with a hunger I couldn’t have possibly explained at the time but that now seems embarrassingly obvious. Facts could be trusted. Facts consoled. Their patient, dogged acquisition constituted a kind of shy possession of the world.
Of course, any possession in this life is, at best, temporary. “My life has been a quest for knowledge and understanding, and I’m nowhere near having achieved that. And it doesn’t bother me in the least,” Trebek cheerfully concludes. He ends the book at home, like of all us, in quarantine. He is exhausted by cancer treatments, exhausted by uncertainty but still sublimely calm and grateful. As he’s always advised his contestants to do, he’s already looking ahead to the next question.