By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — “Who is the pope?”
The answer? Jeopardy host Alex Trebek’s second-career choice had he not served as the legendary long-running game-show host for over three decades.
Last week, Trebek, along with his wife Jean, accepted Fordham University’s Founder’s Award – one of its top honors for individuals who have dedicated their careers to “wisdom and learning in the service of others.”
In accepting the award – a 20 pound statue of the Jesuit institution’s founder Archbishop John Hughes – Trebek joked to the audience that “I have a thing about men with capes,” jesting that he’d always been intrigued by the papal office.
While he may not be pope, according to Fordham president Father Joseph McShane, Trebek has become the “nation’s school teacher” during his impressive career in the public spotlight.
Fr. McShane told The Tablet that he’s “made it acceptable to be interested in studying and staying current with news in a painless, rewarding, and satisfying way.”
Jeopardy, Fr. McShane said, is “not just about trivia” but also about knowledge, which he says he hopes all members of the Fordham community are pursuing in earnest.
Last March, the 79-year-old Trebek announced he had stage-four pancreatic cancer. His openness about his illness and his graciousness along the way, Fr. McShane told attendees, has made him not only the nation’s schoolteacher, but now, the nation’s pastor.
The Trebeks’ son Matthew graduated from Fordham with a degree in philosophy in 2013 and has gone on to open two restaurants in Harlem. In honor of their son’s decision to stay in New York and invest in the community, the Trebeks’ established a scholarship fund to help students from Harlem attend the university.
Fr. McShane said that since Matthew’s arrival in New York, he’s “grown to know and love” the Trebek family, adding that the university has previously awarded Alex with an honorary doctorate.
In addition to Matthew, the Trebeks’ daughter Emily also attended a Jesuit institution, graduating from Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles in 2015.
Both Alex and Jean, Fr. McShane told The Tablet, are “quiet about everything they do.”
“Since his diagnosis, he’s taught us how to live and to live generously,” Fr. McShane continued. “His graciousness as a public figure is what we’d like to see in all of our students.”
“They see themselves as stewards of things God has made possible in their life,” he said of their generosity.
The award was presented at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles on January 7 marking the first time it has ever been presented outside of New York. Fr. McShane said the university opted to go to Trebek so that he could avoid the hassle of travel.
The annual fundraising dinner, which will still take place in New York on March 30, provides scholarships for undergraduates from underrepresented communities who represent the same ethical principles of Fordham’s founding members.
At the dinner, Trebek highlighted the importance of prayer in getting him through his illness.
“If there’s one thing I have discovered in the past year, it is the power of prayer. I learned it from the Jesuits when I was a kid. l learned it from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate when I was in boarding school,” he told attendees, fighting back tears.
“Jean is the same way,” Fr. McShane told The Tablet. “She’s very prayerful.”
While Trebek may be close to finishing up his earthly vocation – he’s not quite done yet. Prior to the award dinner, he had spent two days taping two episodes of “Jeopardy,” arriving at the venue still in make-up from the recording studio.
After his remarks about the importance of prayer in his life, Fr. McShane said he asked the 275 attendees that were on hand to join him in reciting the Our Father and praying for Trebek.
“It was a great pastoral moment,” said Fr. McShane.