Remembrances: Phillips Gibson

Let me give my recollection of the curious incident of the great Bellairs television answer. Rather of his two great answers. As for great answer number one, I agree with Tom Banchoff. "The first to hit his buzzer...John was able to reel off the first dozen lines, a strikingly erudite performance." Yes! I feel sure he buzzed in at "Whan that" and before "Aprill," and then continued in the mellow accent scholars now assign to (ala, long departed) Middle English.

At half time, in those strange old television days, there was a commercial - probably done live on another camera. The commercial would have been for General Electric which sponsored the whole show. Off-camera the host and the players had a brief chat and then: back on the air - live of course. So now for the second great answer.

Allen Ludden: "That was very impressive. Not only how quick you buzzed in, but also the fluent way you continued – all in Middle English. How did you learn that so well?"

John Bellairs: "My mother is Middle English. When I was a child, we spoke it at home all the time." [All contestants, the audience of Georgetown students-and the host-break up with laughter.]

After the show, traveling home, through the next week, and even beyond (after the loss to Barnard), our team, and various other friends, were sure that the quiz show host had taken the "Middle" in Middle English to be geographical. Something like Oxford English or, in American, Southern or Midwestern English.

This reminds me of another favorite target of John Bellairs. Other students at Notre Dame came from exotic or distant places like Massachusetts, New York, Los Angles, or Oklahoma – or even Chicago, close at hand but still a major monster. His hometown was (and still is) very near to South Bend – diagonally across the state line in Michigan. Marshall, Michigan was a subject he described with quiet glee. The town as he saw it was the epitome of the ordinary – a small hometown that excelled in mid-western mundane banality.

During the week our team got to practice, complete with ultra-fast electronic buzzers, in front of television cameras from station KNDU (not broadcast beyond studio monitors as far as I know). Better than that: we got to practice against a team of highly skilled young women!

Saint Mary's College was (and still is) west of Notre Dame. The two schools are connected by long tree-lined walkways. But a busy north-south highway cuts the middle of the idyllic route. Thus the way is physically as well as morally dangerous. Saint Mary's was (and still is I believe) further back in its medieval religious ways than Notre Dame. (Of course for a yet more medieval ambiance one might make a winter visit to the frigid silence of St. Teresa's in Winona, Minnesota – as I did for social purposes a few years before John Bellairs became a teacher there.)

But on to our hosting of the women from Barnard College! The real deal to be broadcast live! Here is where I must differ a bit from Tom Banchoff, when he says, "they thoroughly swamped our team." As I recall it, the show was more of a two-person race. Andrew Connelly was almost as fast as their superstar Phyllis Hurwitz. One of them would buzz in and interrupt the question and then get the right answer. You might think there was something rigged or paranormal unless you knew from practice how trivia questions run in patterns (I am sure John Bellairs knew The Canterbury Tales after the first word – no need for the second word. Andrew could do that sort of thing with classical music – when he heard one of two notes or heard the beginning of a trivial fact about a composer).

As I recall it, Barnard was by no means out of reach. Primed by examples of super-speed answering by others, I managed to punch my button at exactly the wrong moment.

Allen Ludden: "Name a pair of legendary twins..."

Phil Gibson: [Punches buzzer. Thinks "Romulus and Remus." Unfortunately the buzzer does not instantly turn off the questioner.]

Allen Ludden: "...who were fed by woodpeckers..."

Phil Gibson: [Thinks "Cripes! What if it is Castor and Pollux?" He opens his mouth and says nothing.]

Allen Ludden: "Sorry time is up. Now I will read the entire question for Barnard." [Repeats and then completes.] "...and were suckled by a she-wolf." [A Barnard player politely, almost with embarrassment, spears the fish in the barrel. Notre Dame players agonize about losing that one. Mentally they roll about on the floor. So does Gibson, but physically he stands there, mouth physically or at least metaphorically open.]

Note that, unlike a current trivia show where the host is protected while he gives the entire question (or as it is called, the answer), the host of the College Bowl could be interrupted. There was however a penalty for an early wrong answer. Not only that, then the question would be repeated and completed and was then a free shot for the opposing team.

So for the last three decades my self-image has been of the Notre Dame player who grabbed the ball and then stood there trying to decide which way to run – and made a point swing big enough to lose the game. But now my image is tarnished. Instead of having one brief moment of national fame as a perfect fool – I mist settle for less than perfect.