Go Bellairs! Quote Chaucer!

Middle English at the College Quiz Bowl

college bowl ticket
Notre Dame Quiz Bowl team (Mar. 8, 1959)
G.E. College Quiz Bowl
March 8, 1959
Notre Dame Quiz Bowl Pep Rally (Mar. 10, 1959)
Notre Dame Quiz Bowl Pep Rally (Mar. 10, 1959)
South Bend - Notre Dame Students give rousing welcome to television quiz winners. John Bellairs, back to the camera, lower left, waves to fellow students as he is hoisted onto shoulders Monday night at the entrance to the University of Notre Dame campus. About 4,000 students staged a rally to welcome Bellairs and other members of the College Bowl television quiz team that defeated Georgetown University in Washington Sunday.
Tribune, March 10, 1959
Barnard College Quiz Bowl team (Mar. 15, 1959)
Barnard College Quiz Bowl Team
March 15, 1959
College Quiz Bowl (Mar. 15, 1959)
College Quiz Bowl (Mar. 15, 1959)
G.E. College Quiz Bowl
March 15, 1959
On January 5, 1959, the College Bowl program became a network television show on the CBS television network. The program's sponsor was the General Electric Company and thus the program became known as the GE College Quiz Bowl. Notre Dame joined Georgetown University as the only two Catholic school teams to debut that year.

Notre Dame's team was selected by Father John E. Walsh, recalls team member Thomas Banchoff. "I believe that he just asked around for some likely contestants. Once chosen the team would meet once or twice a week to 'practice' although there were no books of questions similar to the ones that became popular during the time of the Trivial Pursuit game."

Banchoff, Bellairs, Andrew Connelly, and Brian Moran represented Notre Dame for their first contest, held in McDonough Gymnasium on the Georgetown University campus on March 8. The alternate, Phillips Gibson, traveled to Washington D.C. with the team and watched as host Allen Ludden quizzed members of each team. While some questions tested the triviality of current events, other questions focused on specific fields of study - like mathematics or literature.

However, the most memorable question resulted in John Bellairs quoting Middle English on the program. "It was well known that John and Andy were humanities scholars and that John was a Chaucer expert," Banchoff recalls. A question was presented that would offer bonus points for every line of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that the team could quote in Middle English and, "John was the first to hit his buzzer. Any of us could have identified the reference, but John was able to reel off the next dozen or so lines, a strikingly erudite performance. He would have gone on but the point had been made."

"That was like throwing a lamb chop to a wolf," adds Al Myers. "He used to be able to empty rooms with that very recitation."

Charles Bowen doesn't know if Bellairs contributed more correct answers than anyone else, but confirms he ran up the score with the bonus points. "It looked as if he would get through the entire Prologue and half of the Knight's Tale before he ran out of breath -- but there was a maximum score and they stopped him much sooner than that. Georgetown had ruled for an ungodly number of weeks, so it seemed a significant triumph and John certainly did his part to make our ephemeral victory a sweet one."

During the commercial break Ludden commented on Bellairs' ability to not only to buzz in quickly but also speak fluently in Middle English. Bellairs commented matter-of-factly, "My mother is Middle English. When I was a child, we spoke it at home all the time."

Gibson relates that "even though all the contestants, the students, and the host broke out in laughter, after the show and even beyond, our team, and various other friends, were sure that Ludden had taken the 'Middle' in Middle English to be geographical; something like Southern or Midwestern English."

An article in the March 13 Scholastic highlights some of the other interactions between Ludden and the team:

The Notre Dame team made quite a hit during the interview portion of the show. Moran and Banchoff both described their major interest to the MC, but Banchoff added that in light of the math question they missed perhaps he shouldn't admit it. Connelly, when asked what he does, promptly replied "Waste time." The SCHOLASTIC'S own John Bellairs announced that besides his studies as an English major, he writes a weekly humor column for the SCHOLASTIC thereby spreading "sunshine and culture" throughout the University. When asked if he felt that he was a full blown humorist Bellairs answered immediately "Isn't it obvious."

The end result: the boys from South Bend won 205 to 90.

Two days later the triumphant Notre Dame team returned home where a crowd of 4000 students, professors and citizens turned out to welcome them back much like the Fighting Irish Football team. Bowen recalls hearing the chant 'Go Bellairs! Quote Chaucer!' - "a moment to make any English major's heart beat proudly."

The November 1960 issues of Reader Digest said, "players were hoisted atop the shoulders of the throng, a big banner was unfurled reading 'Beat Army.' That was the next big game coming up. This victory celebration was not for the famous football team. It was for four brainy Notre Dame boys who had just beaten Georgetown University in an electrifying battle of wits on a television show."

The following Sunday, March 15, Notre Dame hosted the all-woman Barnard College team to South Bend. Gibson replaced Banchoff on the team because, Banchoff believes, "it was felt that my area of expertise and Brian Moran's were too similar, both of us being mathematics majors."

The program originated from Washington Hall and this time there was no Middle English and the luck of the Irish campus was not on their side. The four Barnard College girls clobbered the Soronites, winning and advancing to the next week's show. Banchoff recalls one freshman on the Barnard team who answered everything, faster than anyone else could begin to respond. "I don't remember her name, but, single-handedly, she could have beaten the entire Notre Dame team that day."

This program wasn't without it memorable quotes, however. "During half-time of the College Bowl show, the host would usually ask the teams some question," Banchoff notes. "I don't remember what John said, but I recall that Andy Connelly, the most iconoclastic of all of us, said he had gotten lost in Washington the week before and missed 'the whole damn thing.' There was a huddle among the TV people who decided that he should say 'darn,' but by the middle of the show, with Barnard an impossible number of points ahead, Andy used his original wording, eliciting great disapproval from [Ludden]."

Incidentally, Allen Ludden left quite on impression on his contestants as well. One of Bellairs' later-day friends in Massachusetts remarked that Bellairs once told her that he thought Ludden was a really mean and nasty man, neither friendly nor even sociable. "He thought the host gave very negative vibes and was only concerned about how he came off on camera -to the detriment of the contestants." Banchoff's impression was that he knew very few of the answers to the questions he was asking. "I don't recall him as being particularly mean or nasty, although he was visibly perturbed when Andy Connelly said 'damn' on the air after he had been told not to."

Overall, Bellairs seems to have enjoyed his brief moment of fame. In his March 20 article of the Scholastic, he writes that "now that all the paper whistles are put away and I am no longer being offered suzerainty over the known universe, I can get back to writing this column and my senior thesis (in that order). Last week I was borne aloft by cheering thousands, and now I hear naught but the hollow laughter of freshmen and the gibes of my former well-wishers. Summer soldiers and sunshine patriots! Remember at least the Middle English lines which caused millions of TV sets to be turned off all across this fair land. Remember us when we represented Notre Dame's intellectual youth to a slack-jawed nation! Remember the Maine! Dieu le veut! Oh, well..."

One question asked frequently is whether or not footage of Bellairs's television debut on the March 8, 1959 broadcast still exists. Maybe: the UCLA Film and Television Archives contains an episode airing on March 9, 1959. In reality, this would be a day off from the March 8 program of Notre Dame vs. Georgetown match and John's words about Middle English. The question remains how easily one can get in to view the program.