With the lights of Los Angeles flickering as a backdrop, Fordham University bestowed the Fordham Founder’s Award on Alex and Jean Trebek at a presidential reception at the Bel-Air Country Club on Jan. 7. It was the first time that the award, represented by the weighty statuette of Fordham founder Archbishop John Hughes, had ever been given outside of New York City, though the Founder’s Dinner will still be held in New York on March 30.

The iconic game-show host, who is living with stage four pancreatic cancer, arrived at the event straight from the studio still in makeup from recording five episodes of Jeopardy!. He told the crowd that he was there to provide comic relief from the formalities. Pointing to the statue, he noted that at 20 pounds it was the heaviest award he has ever received.

“That’s about a case of beer for those of you who keep track of statistics,” he mused.

On a more serious note, he acknowledged that his consistent appearance on the game show, despite his illness, has been an encouragement to others who are suffering.

“It’s humbling and it’s gratifying; because of the program that I have hosted for 36 years I have managed to touch the lives of so many people,” he said.

Fordham Trustee Fellow Armando Nuñez, GABELLI ’82, Trustee Brian MacLean, FCRH ’75, Alex Trebek and Jean Trebek, PAR, and Father McShane

He recalled a recent Lakers game that he attended where the sports announcer Mike Breen, FCRH ’83, leaned in to remind him that there were “a lot of people praying” for him.

“And if there’s one thing I have discovered in the past year it is that 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 said with tears in his eyes.

Father McShane blesses Alex Trebek
Father McShane blesses Alex Trebek.

The Trebeks would go on to send their two children to Jesuit schools. Their daughter, Emily, graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in 2015 and their son, Matthew, graduated from Fordham College at Rose Hill with a degree in philosophy in 2013. Today Matthew is a restaurateur in Harlem, an area of the city that the couple has grown very fond of. They established the Alex Trebek Endowed Scholarship, making gifts of $2 million to aid Fordham students from North Harlem and East Harlem.

“You think Alex Trebek is a good man; you don’t know the half of it, he’s better than you think,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “He’s a brilliant man who is the nation’s school teacher, let’s admit that. As the host of Jeopardy!, he is our school teacher and we look forward to going to school every evening.”

Father McShane called Trebek a man of “quiet generosity” who, even in tough times, continues to teach.

“He teaches us about how to live each day with purpose, with focus, with determination, with love, and without being obsessed with oneself,” he said. “All that he does is outwardly directed. And he would freely say that the inspiration for all of this is his muse, Jean.”

In accepting the award, Jean Trebek drove home Fordham values that align with those of her and her husband.

Paul Klemish and Trustee Alexis Klemish, LAW '93
Paul Klemish and Trustee Alexis Klemish, LAW ’93

“We understand how education, and probably more importantly, higher education, is one of the linchpins of society,” she said. “The many issues that we currently face are intertwined and affected by the leveling of educational availability.”

She said that she and her husband find the very idea of how a scholarship can change a life “awe-inspiring.”

“Once we are allowed to have the support that leads to an educated mind, that mind has the opportunity to be open and curious which allows for a fuller understanding and appreciation of our humanity both individually and collectively,” she said, noting that she has seen it occur in her own family.

“On a personal note, thank you, Father McShane and Fordham, for helping to develop our son Matthew’s personhood, both intellectually and emotionally, so that he can move through his life, which he does, with great confidence, responsibility, and creativity,” she said.

Fr. McShane with Founder's Scholar Kristen Harb and her parents Rula and Simon Harb
Father McShane with Founder’s Scholar Kristen Harb and her parents Rula and Simon Harb. View a video of Harb’s speech here.

Her husband echoed her sentiments.

“If you have compassion in your heart, everything is possible, peace everywhere is possible,” he said. “If we are able to affect society in a positive way then our lives will not be for naught.”

Father McShane said he could not agree more with the couple, particularly as it related to the power of prayer. He then asked the crowd to join him to pray for Alex and “for his ministry.”

“That’s the one thing that has become clearer and clearer in the last few months, the school teacher has now become the minister,” said Father McShane, before reciting the Our Father and blessing Alex.

Earlier, eyeing the Archbishop Hughes statue during his acceptance speech, Trebek noted, “I have a thing about men with capes.

“People ask me at the studio quite often ‘If you weren’t hosting Jeopardy what would have you wanted to be in your life?’ And my response for years has been consistent, ‘Pope!’”

On leaving the stage, he assured the crowd that he had already tried to lift the 20-pound statue and that he didn’t want it sent back to his home. He was taking it home himself.

“I want it,” he said.

Daniel Nuñez, Alex Trebek, and the evening's hosts, Madeline McFadden-Nuñez and Armando Nuñez
Daniel Nuñez, Alex Trebek, and the evening’s hosts, Madeline McFadden-Nuñez and Armando Nuñez

The event was hosted by Madeline McFadden-Nuñez and Fordham Trustee Fellow Armando Nuñez, GABELLI ’82, chairman of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group and chief content licensing officer at ViacomCBS. In attendance were alumni, students, and newly-accepted Rams who will start at Fordham in the fall.

Alex Trebek with Kathleen MacLean, FCRH '75 and Trustee Brian MacLean, FCRH '75
Alex Trebek with Kathleen MacLean, FCRH ’75 and Trustee Brian MacLean, FCRH ’75

Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.