Marquette native finds Jeopardy! fame

Anchorage teacher Mary Beth Hammerstrom is originally from Marquette and recently took second place in the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Anchorage teacher Mary Beth Hammerstrom is originally from Marquette and recently took second place in the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

by Eric C. Hammerstrom

“Yes, I am Mary Beth’s brother,” I say.

“Yes, I am Mary Beth’s mother,” says my mother.

“Home of the genius––genius’s father speaking,” my father answers the telephone.

My sister is a celebrity of sorts, after stretching her fifteen minutes of fame into two weeks of competition on the 2013 Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament, in which she placed second, just $800.00 behind an extremely smart fellow with the fastest buzzer finger in America.

In Jeopardy! money, that $800.00 difference equated to $50,000.00 in legal tender.

My sister, Mary Beth Hammerstrom, an economics, sociology and criminology teacher at A.J. Dimond High School in Anchorage (Alaska), finished second and won $50,000.00.

John Pearson, a fourth grade math teacher at Barbara S. Austin Elementary School in Coppell (Texas), won the $100,000.00 grand prize and a berth in the next Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Third place and $25,000.00 went to Becky Giardina, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Burke County Middle School in Waynesboro (Georgia).

But when Mary Beth reflects upon her experience on Jeopardy!, monetary winnings are the last thing she mentions.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I got to spend time in an interesting place with a bunch of smart people who are all just as interested in knowledge as I am. They really tried to pick people who were going to be convivial and interesting.

“We got along so well, and I made twelve new friends who I never would have met had I not played this game, and I had a blast doing it.”

Mary Beth was one of 2,000 people invited to audition for Jeopardy! in Kansas City in June. More than 200,000 apply to audition; the application process includes a series of tests to measure applicants’ range of knowledge. At the end of the audition, approximately 400 people are told they might appear on the show in the next year.

Mary Beth said competitors at the teachers tournament are treated like stars from the moment they arrive in Los Angeles.

Hammerstrom took home $50,000 in prize money in addition to prizes for her students. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Hammerstrom took home $50,000 in prize money in addition to prizes for her students. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

“The producers told us that the teachers tournament is their favorite because the teachers all show up ready to play, are generally good sports, that we like to get to know each other, and we’re a fun group,” she said. “They told us it was their favorite thing of the year.

“They kept referring to the fact that we’re underpaid and underappreciated,” she added. “They went out of their way to treat us well.”

Mary Beth traveled from her home in Anchorage to Los Angeles in early October to compete, but the first matches of the tournament were not televised until November 11. After signing a nondisclosure agreement, she was told she could tell just one person how she did, but if that person leaked information, she would have to forfeit her winnings. She chose to tell my mother, who couldn’t even tell my father.

Not telling people immediately is probably the most difficult thing my mother has ever done, beyond childbirth. But Mary Beth doesn’t think my mom fully understood what she told her during that one phone call.

“They did let me call Mom, and they let John (Pearson) call his wife,” she said. “But, I honestly think that Mom didn’t understand what I told her, and she had to swear to secrecy, too. She was not allowed to tell anybody.

“I started crying in the middle of the conversation because it was so overwhelming,” she said. “It was all moving so fast. I started crying because it all hit me at once. Mom kept telling me it was all right, and that she was sure I did fine. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to tell her because I was so overwhelmed.”

Mary Beth described the Jeopardy! matches, and the production process, as extremely demanding.

“They tape an entire week of the show in one day; it was a total whirlwind,” she said. “You’re frantically changing clothes. I played three games in a row, which meant changing clothes three times. They constantly check your makeup and the makeup team is amazing. When they stop taping for a moment, there is someone there ‘de-shining’ you. When you change clothes, they have to de-mic then re-mic you. They’ve got it down to a science. It’s very efficient.”

When she saw herself on television, she said she wished she had those makeup artists around all the time.

“They were like, we’re making you a little darker because Alex is really tan right now,” she said. The makeup was seven layers deep.

One of the most difficult parts of the experience was the return home, where her students and colleagues played “amateur psychologist” in attempts to get her to divulge tournament results.

“I just kept telling people ‘I can’t tell you,’ and they kept trying to trip me up,” she said. “I did a good job of keeping that secret.”

When I asked her how she did, all she said was, “I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much.”

People in Marquette had a hard time believing I didn’t know more.

She made no plans at all for watching anything other than her first match, which was televised on the evening of November 12, because she could not risk hinting that she advanced in the tournament. She invited other teachers at Dimond High School and an assortment of friends over to her house for a viewing party of that first match and prepared tacos. Her little house was crowded for the event, and the Anchorage Daily News sent a photographer, which made her front-page news in Alaska.

But her students were more excited than anyone. During that first match, video footage of Dimond High School cheerleaders and students cheering “Hammerstom, Hammerstrom” was broadcast before a commercial break.

“The kids were really pretty excited about it,” she said. “They all said, ‘Oh man, you were blowing up Twitter,’ because they were tweeting each other while they were watching. Then, I made the mistake of looking at what they said. And you should never, ever look at what your students are saying about you. There was one kid who said I was milking my fifteen minutes of fame, and to that I say, ‘Moo.’

“After that, my colleagues planned a party for the semifinal, and when I made the final, they scrambled and organized a party for the next night. A large portion of our faculty showed up and watched Jeopardy!  with me. They were just as excited for my good fortune as I was.”

Her students received a bonus from her appearance on the show. Her fifth hour economics class at Dimond High School was visited by Sarah Whitcomb Foss, a member of the show’s “Clue Crew,” which travels the world taping video clues for the game show.

Whitcomb Foss presented Mary Beth’s students with a classroom version of the trivia buzzer system.

Since her appearance on the show, she has been answering questions instead of answering with them.

“Everybody asks about Alex Trebek,” she said. “I had very little interaction with him. The only interaction you have with him is on the stage. It’s because they can’t have any allegations that the game is rigged or that someone received favorable treatment, so the host does not interact with the players.

“It seems that the rules are more relaxed today than thirty years ago. My friend Karen Bell played Classic Concentration with Alex as host and couldn’t even get a photograph with him because they couldn’t have the appearance that things might not be on the up-and-up. The thing that’s fun to watch is the way he interacts with the audience, and you never get to see that. He really enjoys talking to the audience and is a very personable man.”

There are other answers she’s been repeating over and over. California taxes are taken out of the prize money. She owes federal taxes. She paid off her credit cards and paid bills from a dental surgery that was not covered by insurance. She bought a new couch that her two huskies (adopted through the humane society from a “feral pack” of village dogs) have already put to good use. And she will pay off her car loan.

Perhaps the most exciting purchase made with her winnings is an electric snowblower, which she recently used to silently clear a foot of snow from her driveway while her neighbors slept.

She hopes to use some of the money to travel.

“I’ve wanted to see the Hagia Sophia ever since I first saw photographs of it in my Byzantine history course in college,” said Hammerstrom. “But in all honesty, I am incredibly excited about paying off my car.”

Mary Beth graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in medieval and early modern European history and earned a J.D. from the University of Minnesota. But she credits our parents and her Marquette Senior High School education for instilling a lifelong love of learning.

“I went to (MSHS) where I received a very good basic education; I had wonderful teachers who encouraged curiosity and taught me to write well,” she said. When asked on camera who her favorite teachers were, she responded that Tom Baldini and Robert Perlberg were particularly influential.

While on Jeopardy!!, she mentioned a visit to MSHS was what brought her to a career in teaching. While she was contemplating a career change, I asked her to teach my students how lawyers would construct arguments for the prosecution and defense in the trial of a character from a novel we’d just finished. She did an excellent job, and I recommended she consider becoming a teacher.

She told that story to Trebek, adding, “I’ve never looked back; I love what I do.”

A large share of the credit also must go to WNMU TV 13’s High School Bowl television program—TV 13’s most popular local production, where four-person high school teams answer questions about history, science, literature, geography, art, music, math and other subjects. High School Bowl is produced by Bob Thomson and hosted by G.G. Gordon.

When Mary Beth told Trebek that “Nothing you learn is ever wasted,” she was quoting High School Bowl’s former host, the late David Goldsmith. She was part of an MSHS squad that won the state championship with Baldini coaching.

Baldini and the MSHS team took their training very seriously, and the memory of that training paid off as Mary Beth “trained” her buzzer finger by practicing with a flashlight.

Buzzing in at the correct moment may be the deciding factor in the Jeopardy!  competition. If players buzz in too early, they are locked out for half a second. In the meantime, one of the other contestants has probably buzzed in and answered correctly.

My wife, Michelle, deserves some credit for Mary Beth’s success. Mary Beth worried there would be too many questions about sports. But in an unseen moment during her first round of competition (cut from the show in the editing room), she correctly answered a question about the length of the marathon at the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, (Hawaii)––”What is 26.2 miles?”

Trebek, however, told her she was incorrect. Mary Beth stood her ground, later telling a reporter from the Anchorage Daily News she was absolutely sure she’d been correct about the length of marathons because “her sister-in-law runs them.”

My daughter, Lexi, contributed to her “Auntie M’s” success, too. For good luck, Mary Beth wore a necklace given to her by Lexi and Michelle.

While High School Bowl, great teachers at MSHS, her Harvard education and law school no doubt helped her perform well on Jeopardy!, the true secret to her success was dinner table conversation.

In what seems to be a bygone practice, our parents required us to eat as a family around the dinner table each night, and conversation about current events was mandatory. In violation of every rule regarding polite dinner conversation, there was only one forbidden topic––television.

“I was blessed with parents who valued education and who possess wide knowledge bases of their own,” she said. “We had only one rule for dinner when I was growing up: no television plots. That meant everything else, including money, politics, religion and current events, was fodder for conversation.”

I’ll take a share of the credit for her success, too; our childhood was filled with vacations that involved long drives on rural highways, where we stopped at every historical marker and small town museum along the way.

I was the one who occupied the other half of the back seat of the car for hours on end so she could learn all those things she would remember on Jeopardy!  This sacrifice has finally paid off. I have become a local celebrity––little brother of the genius.

– Eric C. Hammerstrom

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