Annual contest is not a trivial matter

by Heather LaRoi
The Appleton Post-Crescent, January 28, 2005.

APPLETON — Jonathon Roberts has been dogged by a strange, feeling recently. It’s almost like he’s being watched.

It sounds like a classic case of paranoia except that, well, it just might be true.

Roberts is the grandmaster of this weekend’s 40th annual Great Midwest Trivia Contest headquartered at Lawrence University and, as hopeful spies will attest, clues can be found everywhere.

“Some people follow us around and they’ll watch if you’re logged onto a computer and then if you forget to log off, they can sneak up and try to get information,” said Roberts, with a laugh.

Roberts and 12 other trivia masters have been busy for months, squirreling away nuggets of information from the academic to the arcane to the absurd, all the better to stymie the legions of trivia buffs who will tune in for 50 straight hours of trivia to be broadcast over Lawrence University’s WLFM-FM 91.1.

As always, the fun begins today at precisely 10:00:37 p.m. The event is expected to have more than 70 off-campus and eight on-campus teams testing their trivia mettle.

Is anything out of bounds?

“Not really,” said Roberts, an LU senior from Sturgeon Bay. “It can be anything. People have to not only know their way around the Internet but also what to look for. You have to be really creative.

“A lot of people learn about the trivia masters and what they’re into,” added Roberts (who, for the record, is a music composition and theater major). “For instance, I sell a line of merchandise, T-shirts and kids’ books and stuff, and a group from North Carolina bought a bunch of my stuff right before the contest just in case we might be asking questions from my junk. You just have to be prepared for anything.”

Certainly, J.B. deRosset, class of ’66, had no idea what he was launching 40 years ago, when his only thought was that another trivia contest he had seen at Beloit College was “pretty underwhelming and really didn’t have the passion or creativity or oomph that I thought we could pull together at Lawrence.”

“The fact that there are going to be 70 teams now … man, I’m dumbfounded,” said deRosset in a telephone interview from Miami.

The contest started modestly enough. DeRosset and three friends came up with questions in four categories — music, movies, comic books and television — reflecting their own areas of interest.

The first-ever question? “Who was Superman’s father?” (Answer: Jor-El.)

“It was pretty simple,” deRosset said. “It’s gotten a little bit bigger and grander. We didn’t have to worry about any precedents. Now they have to worry about all the stuff that’s been asked over the years.”

DeRosset will be in Appleton this weekend to check out his creation, and don’t be surprised if he has a few questions of his own to toss into the kitty. Is there a “Mac attack” in the offing from the former European director of finance for McDonald’s?

“Well, everyone knows I worked for McDonald’s,” deRosset said. “Maybe I should ask some questions about that. …”

In deciding which questions make the cut, the trivia masters look for something entertaining and unique, Roberts said, something that is interesting in both the question and the answer.

“We try to keep people away from just looking on the Internet and finding it right away,” he said.

Coming up with the right answers is not the only challenge. Making it through the trivia marathon is also all about sleep deprivation and junk food and plain old willpower.

“It’s ridiculous to begin with and then by the end of 50 hours, it just gets really absurd,” said Roberts, noting that about 15 cases of high-octane Jolt cola have been delivered to the contest’s mission control. “I don’t know, it’s mostly a combination of the sleep and just eating really poorly and not getting out into the sun.”

After all, staying awake for 50 hours is a trick even by college student standards, where being fortified by caffeine often becomes an art form.

“Players will try to stay up the whole time,” Roberts said. “They sleep for just a couple hours and they’ll miss something that only they knew, and they’re just devastated. I’ve heard people talk about missing a question that was their specialty, and it still bothers them years later. It just really irks them to miss that, so they stay up.”

But it’s all worth it, he added.

“It’s just something about the camaraderie, especially at this time of year when it’s usually kind of the dregs for students. It’s just a real pick-me-up to do this,” Roberts said.

The trivia masters prepare between 350 and 400 questions for the annual event, all leading up to what is known as the super garruda question late Sunday. What this year’s primo stumper will be, well, that still is under advisement. But don’t bother looking to Roberts for hints.

“It’s a big nostalgia feel this year,” was all he would divulge. “We’ve been doing interviews of faculty and people from the area that have been around and getting their trivia memories that we’re going to play throughout the contest. It’ll be a real teary-eyed contest for some people.”

Is this another clue?

Roberts just smiles enigmatically.

“This year’s all about the memories and nostalgia so that’d be a good place to look.”

Stay tuned.

Heather LaRoi can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 238, or by e-mail at hlaroi@