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Julia O'Malley: Anchorage trivia-whiz teacher gets a spot on 'Jeopardy!'

Julia O'Malley
Courtesy of Jeopardy!

Anchorage teacher Mary Beth Hammerstrom's answer to my first question about her recent appearance on "Jeopardy!" was supremely unsatisfying.

Me: "What does Alex Trebek look like up close?"

Her: "He looks exactly like he looks on television."

Hammerstrom, who teaches economics, criminology and Alaska studies at Dimond High School, appeared last week before a television audience of just over 9 million people as a contestant in the quarterfinals of the "Jeopardy!" Teacher's Tournament. She advanced to the semifinals, and will appear again on Wednesday night at 6 p.m. on KYUR Channel 13.

Hammerstrom is in the running for a $100,000 prize, and is already taking home $10,000 in winnings, she told me Tuesday by telephone. On Wednesday, her fifth hour economics class at Dimond will also have a visit from Sarah Whitcomb Foss, a member of the show's "Clue Crew," who travels the world taping video clues for the game show. Hammerstrom's "Jeopardy!" appearance means her students get a classroom version of the trivia buzzer system.

Hammerstrom's trivia training began in high school on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she said. She was part of a regional public television game show called "High School Bowl."

"We were state champions. I had this just amazing coach," she said.

After that, she went to Harvard. Then she went to law school and became the staff attorney to a trial court judge in Stearns County, Minn. That's where she started playing on a sheriff's department bar trivia team. She played for seven years. And then she became a prosecutor. And she hated it. So she changed careers and became a teacher.

She's been at Dimond since 2004. Last December, she was talking to a friend from Weight Watchers on Facebook and the friend suggested they both take the "Jeopardy!" online test. She signed up and took it in January. It was 50 questions. She had 15 seconds to read each one and type the answer. She did her best, she said.

"I know I missed 'Treaty of Versailles' because I could not type it fast enough," she said.

At the beginning of April, she was in her sixth hour at Diamond with her iPad open for grading when an email notification came across her screen. She screamed.

"The kids were like, 'Is it a spider on the podium?' No, it's a 'Jeopardy!' ticket."

She was invited to audition in Kansas City. She didn't know it until later, but 200,000 people sign up to take the "Jeopardy!" test, she said she was told. Half of those take it. Only 2,000 people get to audition. About 400 are picked each year to play, she said.

After her audition, her name was placed on a list but there were no guarantees she would be on the show. Then, the day before school started this fall she got the call: she was invited to be a contestant on the "Teacher's Tournament."

"I was just really excited," she said. "They said, 'do you need to talk to your principal?' and I was like, 'She was more excited than I was. I don't think it will be a problem.'"

Hammerstrom prepped for the show by watching "Jeopardy!" and by practicing her buzzer skills with a flashlight. Hitting the buzzer at exactly the right moment was one of the hardest things about her audition. If you hit it too early, you get penalized for half a second, which can cost you the question. She also took all of her potential television outfits to school and her fellow teachers helped her figure out what to wear. In October, she flew to Los Angeles. She arrived at the Hilton and was instructed not to talk to anyone. The contestants were taken to the studio by bus, where they were sent to make-up.

"They were like, we're making you a little darker because Alex is really tan right now," she said.

The make-up was "seven layers deep," she said, but when she saw herself on television last week, she looked pretty good.

"I think I need this team of make up artists before I leave the house every day," she said.

The most surprising thing, she said, was that she didn't feel nervous at all during the taping. And once she got to meet the other contestants, she loved them. Her affection for the group began when they got on the bus and one of them joked, "What? No stripper pole?"

"It turned out to be a wonderful, irreverent group with sharp senses of humor," she said.

They did all the taping in two days, she said.

Last week, for those of you who didn't catch it, things got a little touchy with Hammerstrom and Trebek because it appeared he couldn't hear her answer about the length of a marathon (which she totally knew, by the way. Her sister-in-law runs them.) And then, when she had another question about what four words Ronald Reagan said to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall in 1987, she decided to speak super loudly and clearly so Trebek would get it. "What is: Tear. Down. This. Wall."

"And he said, 'You sound like you're playing, 'Wheel of Fortune,''" she said.

(Trebek trivia, in case you're curious: He is 72 years old. He has hosted the show since it first aired. This is its 30th season.)

She didn't win her round, but she had enough points to advance. She'll be watching herself in the semifinals Wednesday night at the home of a co-worker. Her students will be watching, too. She's known since taping how everything turns out, but she's sworn to secrecy.

"Believe me, " she said. "It has been killing me not to be able to talk about it."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

 


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