By Jillian Risberg
Thirty years in the making, a Penn State University English professor walks away with $10,000 and solidifies her place in ‘Jeopardy!’ history.
Another perk: possibly realizing her dream of a 19-century letterpress printer.
Though the finals weren’t in the cards for Hester Blum, she looks back on the venture fondly.
“This was a surpassingly wonderful experience with remarkably smart, funny, generous professors,” Blum says it was as thrilling to watch her fellow contestants compete on TV as it was to witness such strong players live.
“I hope that the first-ever ‘Jeopardy!’ Professors Tournament can shift some perceptions about Higher Education in one significant way: the competing professors are from just about every kind of higher institution possible.”
And she says those in academia already know there is no difference in commitment, training, intelligence and care among those great American institutions.
“I hope the ‘Jeopardy!’ Professors Tournament makes this more visible outside academia, too,” says Blum.
An ex-athlete, Blum felt intense competitive muscle memory in the gameplay, and was thrilled to feel that again.
Jeopardy is definitely an intense gig.
“I am struck anew by how different it is to shift from the slow, meditative pace of academic knowledge to the hyper fast, multi-sensory experience of ‘Jeopardy,’ says the 2019 Guggenheim Fellow.
On the Alex Trebek Stage at Sony Pictures Studios, they tape five games a day: quarterfinal matches were all filmed on a Monday, and the semifinals and finals all on Tuesday, according to Blum, who says she was flushed with adrenaline and planned to play more conservatively than her swinging-wildly quarterfinal.
After taping one game, she experienced an unprecedented hitch, but took it all in stride.
“A combination of too much adrenaline, some hunger and dehydration and just general out-of-body, out-of-mindedness sent me to Cedars-Sinai with a huge blood pressure spike,” says Blum, adding that she was fine and the ‘Jeopardy!’ crew took excellent care of her.
Her whole ‘Jeopardy!’ endeavor started when an old elementary school friend told her about the opportunity to be on the storied show, and the lifelong fan was all in.
Her first audition was composed of a 50-question, 15-minute online test. She subsequently concluded another test on Zoom while being monitored by a ‘Jeopardy!’ producer.
She made it through that round to get a virtual tryout invite with other applicants — seeing prospective contestants divided into groups of three to compete in a concise mock match of the game.
And Blum says it was wild being on the actual show to compete in the ‘Jeopardy!’ Professors Tournament.
The Livingston High class of ’91 graduate was one of 15 professors chosen for the inaugural competition.
It has been a longtime coming…
Blum says her relationship to the game show harks back to high school, when she applied to ‘Jeopardy!’s teen tournament but declined an invite, and always regretted it.
“I was selected randomly to come try out, but I didn’t go because I had basketball practice, which was not the right decision to have made, but 30-plus years later and here I am,” she says.
And there she was indeed, with strangers far and wide getting an instant introduction to the scholar of nineteenth-century American literature, oceanic and polar literature.
“Millions of people watch ‘Jeopardy!’ and it’s been gladdening to have an inbox full of examples of people who do so out of a love of knowledge and books,” Blum says for ‘Jeopardy!’ fans, entertainment value equals learning new things. It’s such a tonic.
And she loves her new educator friends, with nothing but accolades for and was honored to share the set with them.
“This is an exceptional game, especially knowing the contestants, who are genuinely fantastic and I’m grateful for their support,” says Blum, adding that she was in brilliant and cool company.
She was excited to make Penn State proud with her ‘Jeopardy!’ showing and knows she was part of something special.
“Those of us honored to be selected for the ‘Jeopardy!’ Professors Tournament were acutely aware of how rare it was to be seen by a media/entertainment powerhouse,” Blum says. “The ‘Jeopardy!’ producers saw that higher education happens in marvelously diverse places.”
The English professor can count reaching the semifinals among her endless accomplishments.
So many took notice.
“From the LHS (Livingston High School) Challenge Team to the ‘Jeopardy!’ Professors Tournament — you have been a question, answering and asking wonder,” says Jon Brolin.