Trivia veterans shun the pressure

by Kathy Walsh Nufer
The Appleton Post-Crescent, February 2, 1986.

The scene in Larry Page’s basement Saturday afternoon was one of relaxed chaos.

The “Free, White and 21” team was easing itself into the 21st annual Midwest Trivia Contest.

The players, all of them Lawrence University alumni and dedicated trivia lovers, had traveled from such far-off locales as Illinois and Minnesota and came loaded down with such reference aids as Sports Illustrated, American Baby, The World Almanac, Time and the Baseball Register.
Some team members talked of having played off and on since the late 1960s. Others described their various trivia triumphs.

As in past years, they had found their way to the home of Page, LU director of broadcasting, who keeps the trivia nuttiness alive from year to year, to see if they still have the stuff trivia stars are made of.

By midafternoon the group had not quite hit its stride as trivial pursuits go, but no one seemed too worried.

“We play calmly,” said one team member, noting the array of sleeping bodies.

While some napped, others munched on Fritos, crackers and peanut butter, nursed bottles of beer and cocked a collective ear to the sounds of Lawrence University radio station WLFM as they waited to hear contest question 132.

A toddler sat manning one of the team’s two phones.

“We’re not doing too well this year,” confided Bill Porter, 36, of Menomonee, after the team failed to come up with Green Bay Packer Coach Forrest Gregg’s fir name (Elvis).

Porter, playing in his 10th consecutive trivia contest, said he had heard stories about the young, technologically savvy teams that use computers and multiple phone banks, and make lots of long-distance phone calls to obtain their answers.

But the “Free, White and 21” team prefers to play in the time-honored tradition of old, he said. “We eat, drink and be merry, and wing answers when we can.”

It was into this slightly rumpled, slightly groggy and slightly aging gathering of trivia contest veterans that a dapper, sportcoated J.B.deRosset walked Saturday afternoon.

The 42-year-old deRosset founded the trivia contest in 1966, but few people know it.

“I think I’m a bit of trivia myself,” he told a visiting reporter. “I kind of fell through the cracks.”

Twenty years have passed since his contest idea took hold, h e said, and he had come to town to see how it had “blossomed.”

He was liking what he saw, “It’s become institutionalized,” he observed, crediting Page with keeping it going.

Now director of European finance for the McDonald’s Corp. in Oak Brook, Ill., deRosset never doubted that the contest would be a success.

“I could have predicted it would keep going,” he said.

First off, he noted, it was a great idea. It came to the former Lawrence math major during his senior year.

On a visit to Beloit College he took note of a trivia contest there. That one “was done in a real amateur manner though,” he said, and he came home determined to do it better.

With the help of four students at the university’s radio station, and “good marketing and organization,” he got it going. The five spent the winter making up questions and ran the contest in May.

Since then the contest has steadily gained in momentum and national recognition.

Trivia players have definitely grown more sophisticated over the years, said deRosset, and so have the questions.

“The questions have gone a little beyond my abilities,” he conceded, recalling how in his day his specialty was rock ‘n’ roll. “I kind of have a steel-trap mind,” said deRosset, some-time alternate for the Lawrence college bowl team.

DeRosset said he was eager to join the other veterans and test his trivia mettle. He said he regretted not returning sooner. “This is a good party which I’ve missed for too long.”