'He was fascinating': Lisa LaFlamme reflects on Alex Trebek's legacy
In the wake of broadcaster Alex Trebek’s death following a battle with pancreatic cancer, CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme reflected on his life, calling him “someone very special.”
“I’m so sad, I really am. I feel like we have really lost an icon, and I don’t use that word very often, or lightly, and Alex Trebek was an icon,” she told CTV News Channel on Sunday.
“We’ve met many times over the years, spoken many times, and I just loved him.”
Trebek, best known for being the host of “Jeopardy!” since 1984, was 80 years old when he died on Sunday morning. Since the news of his death broke, the internet has flooded with fans and viewers sharing condolence and stories of what he meant to them.
“He was fascinating, always engaged, a huge philanthropist about the world, cared so much about children’s charities throughout the world, the environment,” LaFlamme said.
Although he spent much of his career working in the U.S., Trebek never forgot his Canadian roots, LaFlamme said.
“He was always Canadian first, which I found really endearing about him,” she said. “It was Alan Thicke who really gave him his big break, another great Canadian, and they were lifelong friends as well.”
Thicke had encouraged Trebek to make the move to California to host an NBC game show called “The Wizard of Odds” after Trebek had spent many years working in broadcasting in Canada. His first game show didn’t last long, but it led to other gigs, putting him on the path to Jeopardy!.
Trebek is known also for his philanthropy and donating to numerous causes. Over the years, one of the ways he showed his appreciation for Canada was through donations to the University of Ottawa, which he attended. It’s a connection he and LaFlamme share -- she is also a University of Ottawa alumni, although LaFlamme attended long after Trebek had left, something she said was a running joke between them.
“I used to say: ‘You know, Alex, you graduated University of Ottawa the year I was born,’ and he had much to say about that,” she said. “He was a very funny guy.”
“I know everyone at the University of Ottawa who worked so closely with him will be truly mourning his loss today because he is just so much a part of that campus,” she added. “There’s the Alex Trebek Alumni Hall there, which really is a platform for open dialogue and great thinkers to try to solve some of the problems that we all still face in this world, whether it is despot governments or the environment.”
Trebek was also “very political,” LaFlamme said.
He once joked to LaFlamme that if U.S. President Donald Trump came onto Jeopardy!, he wouldn’t be sure if Trump would accept it if he was told he’d answered incorrectly.
“So he had humour on all levels,” she said.
She said she had spoken with Trebek before about the U.S. election, which was only officially called for Joe Biden on Saturday.
“I can’t help but think it’s fascinating that he lived to see how this election outcome happened,” she said. “This is a guy who cared deeply about the world and deeply about democracy. It was a campaign he was on throughout his life, even while he was still taping the show, even while he was sick, he was still very focused on a better world.”
Trebek had been very public about his cancer diagnosis since March 2019, but as he continued to host Jeopardy!, he tried to keep the struggle from being visible to viewers.
LaFlamme said he had told her about “the challenge of having to turn it on for the cameras.”
“Even when he was not well, and feeling weak, he’d hear that voice, ‘Here’s Alex Trebek,’ and he would just steel himself and go out, even in the last year, while he was struggling.”
As he continued battling cancer, “he felt his own speech slurring a bit,” at one point, LaFlamme said. "That was a great concern to him.
“Everybody said: ‘No, you’re doing a great job,’ and he was afraid that there were too many ‘yes-men’ around him, yes-women,” LaFlamme said. “But he kept at it, as we all know. We watched him.”
Last year, in an interview with Trebek, LaFlamme asked if he was afraid of the end of his life.
“Usually when you interview someone, they say ‘Fifteen minutes, or 20 minutes.’ Not Alex, he was wide open, everything was on the table,” she said.
Trebek’s work on Jeopardy! wasn’t just entertaining. For many people, watching the show allowed them to start learning English, something that Laflamme says “meant a great deal” to Trebek.
“Whenever he’d come home, he was walking through the ByWard Market and so many people would see him and recognize him and come over and talk to him,” LaFlamme said. “Last year, about this time, he was too sick to really do much, he was weak but he still wanted to make that trip and even on that trip, somebody came up to him and said -- a new Canadian -- ‘You taught me English. My children now watch you.’”
Although Trebek, who never sought the spotlight, “didn’t love being the poster child for pancreatic cancer,” LaFlamme said, “he talked about what a responsibility it was.
“I think still, he gave a lot of hope and strength to people,” she said, pointing out that just seeing him continue to attend work during his battle was inspiring.
She said that although he is more than the show that defined his career, that show helps encapsulate the impact he made on others.
“His legacy is truth,” she said. “Because that was Jeopardy… it wasn’t just a job for him. He was obviously passionate about helping educate the public and education was a huge issue for him and accuracy and truth.
“And that’s not a bad legacy, especially in this world.”