top of page

Come on Ken!

In the Spring of 2005, I got a call from Bob King, long-time chief of staff to Congressman Tom Lantos of California. I had developed a close working relationship with Bob over the years as I have chronicled in Eye of the Tiger (July 15, 2022). Tom Lantos was not your average congressman and Bob was anything but your average chief of staff. Few, if any staffers have gone on to become American ambassadors, but among his many other accomplishments, Bob was elevated to that honored perch.

Bob was a Mormon and through the church had made a contact with one of the highest profile Mormons in the country at the time. This recently famous young man was visiting Washington and Bob was arranging tours and experiences to fill a couple days of his time. That is how I met Ken Jennings, the highest-earning American game show contestant of all time.

CBS Sunday Morning in its recent profile of Jennings reported that as an American kid growing up in Korea, he spent an inordinate amount of time watching game shows on Armed Forces network television. While he went on to become a software engineer, game shows remained a passion and Jeopardy with Alex Trebek was his favorite. After landing an audition as a contestant on the show, Jennings was selected and turned the opportunity into gold.

In 2004, Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games over the course of 182 calendar days and walked away with $2,522,700 (before taxes of course). He broke every record in the book, became a household name, and carried around one of the most recognizable faces in the world. And Bob King wanted me to give him a tour of the National Archives.

My first impression was just how young this guy was.

He would have been 31 years old when we met, but he has one of those faces that projects uncanny youth. And then there was this uber awkward demeanor that even added to the impression that you were talking to a much younger person.

I had not been a Jeopardy groupie, so in those pre-Google days, I spent the first few minutes catching up with Ken’s resume. Brigham Young grad, married, one son at the time (daughter Caitlin born the following year).

Though it was nearly 19 years ago, three things about the day stand out in my mind.

We started the tour of our permanent exhibit, The Public Vaults, with a John Constance one-liner that went nowhere. As we walked from the rotunda into the exhibit, I turned to Ken and said, “Hey, you’re so smart, why don’t you give ME a tour?” The blank expression, unsmiling mouth, and dead eyes I got in return resembled someone who had just blown the answer on the Daily Double. It was clear that humor was not going to be a big part of our time together.

Secondly was his reluctant annoyance at being famous.

As we walked through the crowded exhibit that afternoon, it did not take long for people to start recognizing this world-famous contestant . I was trying to concentrate on some of the highlights that I had found to be of interest to most visitors, but out of the corner of my eye I realized that folks were stopping in their tracks, whispering, pointing, and mentioning his name. Ken Jennings tried to ignore the murmur, but it became difficult. Finally, some of the bolder tourists approached us for a photo, and Jennings outright rejected the first request with the wave of his hand. It came across as rather imperial and got a “come on Ken” from one of the admirers. But he simply walked away.

Realizing my guest's discomfort, I turned and asked, “Let’s allow Mr. Jennings to enjoy his visit, please. Thanks.”

This was new territory for me.

I had spent my career leading elected public officials through the National Archives and in recognition of the public part of the title, they were all too willing to engage our other guests. (aka American tourists). Photos, handshakes, smiles, friendly banter were all part of the shtick that I had come to expect. So, acting as a bodyguard was a new experience.

After a couple additional unsuccessful encounters, two elderly ladies shyly approached and probably due to their reticence and willingness to address someone one-third their age as ‘Mr. Jennings’, Ken responded with a tight smile and stopped for a photo. It was like throwing mealworms into a brood of chickens. As soon as everyone saw one photo being taken, the cameras were out, and the crowd moved in. I could tell from my guest’s reaction that this was the familiar moment that he had been trying to avoid. I weighed into the crowd, extracted the star and successfully stiff-armed other suitors.

The third thing I remembered about that day came to mind when I heard that he had been chosen to host Jeopardy after the beloved Alex Trebek had passed away.

I was shocked that someone as shy, awkward, and devoid of the small-talk gene was being cast as the host of a network television show. Yes, he has a unique resume and history, but even the hometown favorite needs some basic skills to thrive in the arena. Had he matured so much in those intervening 18 years to take on this role?

I have tuned in a couple of times just out of curiosity and must say his presence is better than I expected. While that slightly awkward nerd still comes through, it works in the fact-fest that is Jeopardy. No one will ever be Alex the Great, but Jennings does not claim to be and clearly has gained deserved respect from contestants and audience.

I’m still bitter that he didn’t laugh at my joke. Come on Ken.


bottom of page