And the Winner Is...


by Alyson Klein
The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 20, 2004.

What slogan helped the musician Frank Zappa win a poster contest for forest-fire prevention when he was in the ninth grade?

That's one of the more than 350 questions asked last month in Lawrence University's annual "Great Midwest Trivia Contest," broadcast on the campus radio station, WLFM. According to Alfred T. Beattie, trivia grandmaster, that was among the most difficult questions, but nearly all were similarly esoteric.

Mr. Beattie says he and 15 other students at Lawrence, a liberal-arts college in Appleton, Wis., hunkered down from September to January to read "millions and millions of books" and perform countless Google searches in pursuit of factoids to stump the contestants. Their work culminated in the 52-hour contest.

Since 1966, teams as large as 100 people and from as far away as Japan have participated, some staying awake by their radios the entire weekend so as not to miss a single question. Mr. Beattie or another moderator reads each question on the air, then waits for someone to call in with the correct answer. Points are awarded based on difficulty. No points are subtracted for wrong answers.

For many years, several bank employees from nearby Kaukauna, Wis., have rented out an office for the weekend and spent it in front of computers, wearing headphones, and listening to WLFM. They have won the contest three years in a row. This year their prize was a bathroom scale covered in shag carpeting.

"This event has a real cult following," Mr. Beattie says. "People are really zealous about it."

Zappa's slogan: "No picnic. Why? No woods. Prevent forest fires."