Throughout his remarkable 36-year tenure as host of the highly-rated game show “Jeopardy!” Alex Trebek, who died earlier this month at age 80, was regularly lauded and applauded for his gracious style, gentlemanly demeanor and well-timed humor.
But what many in his television audience never knew was that the Emmy-award-winning Trebek didn’t just give away millions of the program’s dollars to the show’s successful contestants.
Trebek also gave away his own money to numerous charitable endeavors, including World Vision – the Christian humanitarian organization that conducts relief efforts for children and families in nearly 100 countries around the world.
Trebek’s philanthropic relationship with the Seattle-based charity began in the early 1980s.
Burdened by the devastating Ethiopian famine, Trebek phoned World Vision to make a financial contribution. After relaying his credit card number and before hanging up with the operator, he asked them to let him know if there was any other way he might be of assistance.
Almost immediately, Trebek’s offer was relayed up the charity’s chain of command. Shortly thereafter, the host was on a plane with ministry representatives heading to the poverty-stricken Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
So began an over-30-year relationship that included multiple international trips as well videotaped appeals, where the gregarious Canadian native lent his name and reputation.
In the years since his first trips to assess the needs and offer his assistance, Trebek consistently downplayed his participation.
“Maybe we can make a difference by working and trying to raise money for these children all over the world,” he once reflected. “It’s no big deal.”
But it was a big deal.
Twenty years after his first trip to devastated Ethiopia, the “Jeopardy!” host returned with a friend and colleague of mine who worked for World Vision.
My colleague recalls Trebek standing in a village, which he had first visited in 1984. It had been previously decimated by the famine. Trucks would roam the roads collecting corpses. Back then all the trees had been cut down for fuel, and the stench of death was everywhere.
But by 2004, with the help of World Vision and Trebek, that same village was thriving. The barren landscape was restored with lush vegetation, including blooming trees. Most importantly, a spirit of hope had returned to the community.
With a film crew in tow, Trebek turned to the camera, pointed at the healthy and bustling Ethiopian community and declared, “If you don’t think your gift makes a difference, just look around. It does.”
It’s been popular in some circles to run down America as a selfish, self-absorbed country of excess. Yet, recent surveys suggest that the United States is the most generous nation on earth. A recent Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans donated money to charity last year.
But it’s the quiet and humble nature of Trebek’s philanthropy that strikes me as one of the more endearing aspects and attractive attributes of his generosity.
In a tribute to Trebek after his death, World Vision president and CEO Edgar Sandoval Sr. wrote in part, "Over the years, despite his busy schedule, Alex found time to visit some of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time, bringing attention to the issue of poverty. He not only gave his name and notoriety; he and his wife Jean generously donated to life-saving projects in several countries, changing the lives of the families who lived there."
During his trips to other countries, he always insisted on paying his own way, never demanding or arranging for accommodations better than any other missionary worker received.
If he saw an urgent need – like a hole in a roof or another easily addressed issue with a financial gift – he simply wrote a check to cover its cost.
He took his volunteer role seriously, even obsessively, such as pushing film crews to reshoot an appeal video if he thought he could say it better. It didn’t matter if it was getting dark or cold. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing well. He didn’t expect perfection of others – he demanded excellence of himself.
You might find a building at the University of Ottawa named in the host’s honor (he’s an alumnus), but travel to the villages and orphanages Trebek frequented around the globe over the last three decades and you won’t see his name anywhere.
Instead, you’ll see changed lives and improved communities that benefited from Trebek’s personal faith and rock-ribbed commitment to helping others.
Many of us will remember Alex Trebek for his nightly television visits into our homes – but maybe now you’ll appreciate him even more for his work to save lives and improve other people’s homes – one person at a time.