Lawrence University’s Midwest Trivia Contest and all its chaos and traditions get under way this weekend

by Jim Lundstrom
The Appleton Post-Crescent, January 24, 2003.

The first year Kevin Brimmer and his crew of fellow Drake University graduates participated in Lawrence University’s Midwest Trivia Quiz, they did so using one rotary phone.

The team was called the Flaming Gobs of Vomit Death. Cheap beer and a mixture they called Super Dew — No-Doz and Mountain Dew — was their fuel.

But that was 1986.

“We don’t do that anymore,” Brimmer said of the eye-opening Super Dew combo.

This weekend Brimmer’s 16-member team will sip Wisconsin microbrews while competing in the 38th annual marathon trivia contest as The Lord of the Iowans: The Two Silos.

At their disposal will be plenty of books and reference material, three LAN lines, a minimum of five cell phones, the sponsorship of Sprint PCS and their self-designed Internet search engine because “Google tends to be too biased,” said Brimmer, now a portfolio manager at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.

“The core of my team, we’re made up of a bunch of actuaries and computer programmers, so tech is our life,” he said.

This year’s trivia grand master, Cene Ketcham, an LU senior from Decorah, Iowa, said three new phone lines have been installed in trivia headquarters in the campus radio station.

“Other than that, the contest will run a lot like it has in the past,” Ketcham said. “We do have some exciting action questions planned and are introducing several new theme hours such as Church Hour, Custodial Hour and All-American Hour. We’ve got a hilarious and creative bunch of trivia masters this year, who I’m confident will keep the contest running on the edge of chaos, but never allow it to fall into real anarchy.”

Bill Martin is also a Thrivent employee who throws himself into trivial mode every year at this time. His involvement dates back to 1976.

Today he and his wife, Rocky, host a team at their house that ranges from 15 to 50 people who come from throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest.

“Some don’t play trivia or can’t stay for the whole weekend but just come by for the camaraderie,” he said.

Everyone who comes, however, ingests Martin’s homemade “trivia fuel,” a giant pot of turkey soup.

“They’ll consume pretty much all of it,” he said.

Cheap beer is another longtime tradition dating back “to when we were poor college kids,” Martin said.

Even though someone always brings something cheap, he said, “we actually bring in good beer. Nobody drinks the cheap stuff. I get stuck with it and use it throughout the year to cook brats.”

Brimmer moved to the area in 1985, discovered the annual trivia contest and invited college classmates up for the weekend to take part. They soon became known as the Iowa gang.

“In the first few years, it was an exercise in drinking vast quantities of beer,” Brimmer said. “We did it as a joke the first couple years, and now it’s a tradition. It’s kind of our homecoming, I guess. We get together and pretend we’re 21 again.”

Members come from as far away as Albuquerque, N.M., to as near as the Madison area.

The group always has finished near the top in the 50-hour contest devoted to all things trivial, including a first-place finish in 1997 and third place among 55 teams last year.

“We’re hoping to place in the top three again this year,” Brimmer said.

Martin’s team has a more relaxed attitude toward the competition, especially since welcoming into their fold a member who once played on a team that was too serious.

“If you fell asleep, they’d kick your chair to wake you up,” Martin said. “We don’t really care if we win or not. It would be nice, but we consistently finish sixth or seventh every year.”

Brimmer’s home becomes headquarters for all 16 team members during the 50-hour trivia session.

“That’s the first string,” he said. “Then there’s a second string of locals — friends, people I work with — who show up throughout the weekend.”

While Super Dew was dropped from the regimen, a number of traditions have developed with the annual ritual.

“We have chili cheese dogs on Saturday,” Brimmer said, adding that it goes back to undergraduate days at Drake.

And then there’s the lava lamp.

“If we get in a string of bad luck, we rub the lava lamp, much like one rubs a Buddha belly,” Brimmer said. “It seemed to work once.”

This year he will add a new element to the gathering, a leg lamp Brimmer received for Christmas from his sister.

“That leg represents electric sex gleaming out of the window,” Brimmer said, quoting from the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” in which a leg lamp plays a minor role.

“If there’s such a thing as a cult Christmas movie, ‘A Christmas Story’ is it,” Brimmer said. “The contest usually has a couple questions about it.”

Brimmer said almost everyone on the team has a specialty.

“They have a death and destruction hour,” he said. “That tends to be my specialty. I just have an affinity for people dying in odd and unusual ways.”

There are a couple of sports experts, an English literature major and “a couple guys who have memorized everything that Monty Python has ever done,” Brimmer said.

“The one thing we always get pounded on, we don’t have a good classical music person,” he said. “They’ll play a snippet or two every year and we don’t have a clue.”

How do their families take all this dedication to trivia?

“For the most part, there was trivia before there was families,” Brimmer said. “When they married in, they knew trivia was there.”

Jim Lundstrom can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 374, or by e-mail at jlundstrom@

Trivia contest
WHAT: Lawrence University’s 38th annual Midwest Trivia Contest
WHERE: Broadcast over the campus radio station, WLFM-91.1
WHEN: 10:00:37 p.m. Friday through midnight Sunday