Appleton's Lawrence University annual trivia contest feels like homecoming party

The Appleton Post-Crescent, Jan 26, 2009.

By Cheryl Anderson

APPLETON — The only thing meatier than Bill Martin's homemade turkey soup were the questions his team, Doug's Playing Bridge Upstairs, tried to answer during Lawrence University's 44th annual Midwest Trivia Contest.

"We broke tradition last year and went with beef soup and it didn't work at all," Martin said. "So we went back to the classic."

The contest itself has become a tradition, drawing people in a wide variety of ages from near and far.

It was founded in 1966 by James B. deRosset and runs for 50 consecutive hours, traditionally on the last weekend in January. It is broadcast over Lawrence's radio station, WLFM, and involves teams from on and off campus.

For more than 30 years, Martin's team, which has its roots with members of LU's Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, and their friends have gathered first with rotary phones and books now armed with Bluetooth headsets, seven computers and numerous laptops to answer insanely difficult questions, just for fun.

"This is more computers than NASA had in the '80s," Martin said with a laugh.

Other than about an hour-long break when an external server crashed, Lawrence senior and grand master Erin Watson was pleased with the event.

"A lot of the trivia masters are excited and happy to be on the air when they are, and I think that's projecting a really positive attitude," she said.

The competition, however, is not hard core for Doug's Playing Bridge Upstairs, said Joan Andrews, of Villa Park, Ill., who began playing her freshman year of college in 1971. This year, the team, one of 111 teams registered from off-campus, was named in honor of her late husband and trivia team member Doug Andrews, who died in April.

"It's not about getting 800 questions in. It's about having fun," Martin said. "And so far, we're having fun."

"Early on we really cared about the trivia. We had people who had creative minds, trivial minds and were really good at the kind of questions they asked," said Frank Duchow, of Dubuque, Iowa, who first got involved in the trivia contest his freshman year at Lawrence while working at the radio station. "Now it's a social gathering."

People just show up, Martin said. "It's kind of a homecoming. And it's really neat to see people, some only once a year. They make it a point to come from wherever they are. One year we had like 50 people in this house. We saw people we hadn't seen for 10 or 15 years. It was a big surprise."

Lined with tables and computers, the Martins living room is trivia central. Once a question is asked on-air, the team gets to work.

"Some people are excellent online researchers and have the fun of searching it," said Duchow, who loves guessing answers. "Some people enjoy being on the telephone and talking to people down at the station. The rules are you're allowed three answers per phone call."

"The reality," Andrews added, "is if you are continuing to call in, you are preventing other teams from getting in their answer."

In the early years, teams members dragged their children along for the contest. These days, the kids rearrange their schedules just to be there.

"My kids will say, 'When is trivia? Well, we're going, aren't we?' They grew up coming to this," Andrews said.

"My parents were friends with the Martins before I was born," said Niklas Jackson, 23, of Appleton. "Our families grew up together and ever since I can remember I've been coming here."

There are two challenges to the contest, Duchow said. "One is finding the right answer, and the second is being able to get through to the station and get in. You can dial 10 to 20 times before you get in, if you get in."

By early afternoon Sunday, the team calculated they were in about fifth place. But gathering each year to participate in the annual trivia contest has a deeper meaning.

"It's the people that are here that make it," Martin said. "Not the fact that you're doing the trivia stuff. It's the camaraderie, at this point."

And the turkey soup.