Quirky Q&A: Contest caters to callers

of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Jan. 23, 2002

The hour is fast approaching when people from all parts of the country hurry to Appleton, settle into local basements and rec rooms and pound as much last-minute useless information as possible into their heads.

At 10 p.m. Friday, they have to be ready, because that's when the 37th annual Midwest Trivia Contest at Lawrence University begins. The contest is a wacky competition in which nuns and nannies show off obscure baseball knowledge, and college students and senior citizens vie for prizes such as a 50-pound block of salt.

"It certainly gets people back here," said Lola Dorsett, a 76-year-old grandmother who started baking oatmeal chocolate chip cookies Monday - just one of several types of brain food she offers the 17 team members who crash at her home for trivia weekend.

For 50 straight hours, an estimated 600 players tune in to Lawrence University's radio station, WLFM (91.1), for the contest. There's a new question every 10 minutes. Team members have 31/2 minutes to call in their answers to the WLFM studio, which awards teams five points for every correct answer.

When the contest ends at 1 a.m. Monday, weary but satisfied team members from on and off campus parade to the radio station office to attend an awards ceremony for the highest-scoring teams.

Lawrence University officials say the quirky competition brings back alumni from Seattle to San Francisco. Teams set up makeshift information headquarters filled with computers, file folders of facts and reference books. Many competitors stay up all night so as not to miss one of the nearly 400 questions.

"It's zany, I guess," said Curtis Dye, a Lawrence University senior and Grandmaster Poobah of this year's contest.

The contest began in 1966 when James B. DeRosset attempted to offer an alternative for students who didn't join Lawrence's traditional academic competitions. Since then, teams have picked off-the-wall or newsy names; after the 2000 election, "Electile Dysfunction" and "Re-Count Chocula" were among those competing.

Questions are collected year-round by 12 grandmasters working for the college radio station. With the advent of the Internet, finding suitable questions has become a bit more difficult, but organizers still manage to find plenty of obscure trivia to challenge participants.

Q: "If the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley Field had gone 3 more feet, whose television would have been destroyed?" A: Naomi Martinez, a woman who lives near Wrigley Field. Q: "Who was the first native-born Scot to be canonized by the Vatican?" A: St. John Ogilvie.

Because so many people are playing, the station must keep at least 10 phone lines staffed during the competition. If WLFM staff need help manning those lines, they simply call on trivia players, who leave their teams for a few hours and volunteer a shift.

The prizes are never the main motivation for the craziness, though. In the past, contest winners have been awarded mattresses, pink flamingos and 50-inch sausages. The real prize is continuing the tradition, Dye said.

Dorsett began competing 20 years ago when one of her daughters was in high school.

"It's sort of like when I try to watch 'Jeopardy!' and try and know the answers," Dorsett said. "It's sort of a rush."

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 24, 2002.