Trivial Pursuits: For 50 Hours, Lawrence University Becomes World's Epicenter of the Obsure and Insignificant
APPLETON, WIS. -- Sleep deprivation runs rampant, home pizza deliveries soar, personal hygiene takes a hiatus, basements are transformed into high-tech information bunkers and thinking caps work double overtime.
Just business as usual when Lawrence University's Midwest Trivia Contest hits the airwaves.
Yes, it's time once again to find out just how much people DON'T know.
The 37th edition of Lawrence's mindless marathon of minutia -- the nation's oldest ongoing salute to the insignificant -- returns Jan. 25 at 10 p.m. for a weekend full of questions and answers as obscure as they are inconsequential. The contest is broadcast on the Lawrence campus radio station, WLFM, 91.1 FM.
For 50 consecutive hours, more than 60 on-campus and off-campus teams, some with creative names ripped from the day's headlines -- last year's "Electile Disfunction," "Re-Count Chocula" and "M.T. Pockets Wants a Recount" were inspired by the Bush/Gore presidential debacle -- compete for meaningless prizes by phoning in answers to questions with varying point values.
"WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THE RANCOR'S FIRST VICTIM IN "RETURN OF THE JEDI?" "OOLA!"
Middle-aged with an adolescent's mindset, the Lawrence Trivia Contest traces its genealogy along a humble family tree. It was born innocently enough in 1966 when James B. DeRosset first offered an alternative to students who didn't partake in Lawrence's traditional annual academic retreat of esoteric discussions.
Since then it has grown into a circle-the-calendar event, drawing a large and devoted following who heed its siren's call back to Appleton from points far and near. Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are just a few of the distant addresses of some of this year's contestants.
"This is our homecoming," says Eric Siebers of the team "Lucky Guess," which finished second a year ago in their 19th consecutive contest. "This started out as just a bunch of high school friends and has really grown into something special. We have CEOs, doctors, lawyers and engineers who come back from all over the country. Some people get together at Christmas and Thanksgiving. We've chosen trivia weekend for our reunion."
Part of the contest's mystique is that no one really knows how many trivia players are "out there" racking their brains each January. Some teams have as many as 30 players or more. Conservative estimates say there are at least 600 trivia addicts converge on the Fox Valley each January for their "fix."
During its nearly four-decade existence, the Lawrence Midwest Trivia Contest has nurtured friendships, sparked romances -- one future husband and wife first met as trivia teammates -- and spawned second and even third generation trivia players.
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The make-up of many of the teams is often as quirky and colorful as the contest's questions. The powerhouse Bank of Kaukauna team, the off-campus champion three of the last five years, puts its faith in a dizzying array of high-speed computer equipment, while 76-year Lola Dorsett's "Nudge" and Siebers' "Lucky Guess" teams rely in part on divine intervention -- they count a nun and a priest among their team members.
In nearly all of the 23 years Bill and Carole Leslie have played host and hostess to team "Jabberwocky," the kitchen door of their Greenville home has never been locked trivia weekend. Regardless of the time of day or night, everyone just knows to let themselves in and head for the basement.
Forty-somethings Todd and Debbie Kunstman, who got hooked on the contest as high school students, have graciously turned their Appleton portrait studio into a trivia motel for years to accommodate the 30 or so friends and friends of friends who annually migrate to Appleton at the end of January.
"When you have seven or eight brains working on a question and it all comes together in a right answer, it's the absolutely grandest corporation you could ever be a part of," says Todd Kunstman, sounding a bit Zen-like in explaining the contest's ongoing allure to his teammates.
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"Even though a lot of people think I'm crazy, I love this game," says John Brogan, who, with the help of a dozen or more friends, takes over his parent's home in Kaukauna for the contest while mom and dad head out of town.
"It's an endless challenge and it gives all of us a chance to come together and work as a team to do something cool. And even though it's outrageously expensive to field a team and an endless logistical nightmare, as long as I can convince my friends to fly in from around the country to play, I'll find a way to make it happen."
While the contest's early days of rotary phones and stacks of encyclopedias have long since given way to speed dialing, cell phones and Internet surfing, fundamentally changing the way the contest is played today, the contest's basic essence -- pure fun -- remains firmly intact.
"The charm is still there," says Curtis Dye, a senior from Vernon Hills, Ill., who is serving as this year's Trivia Grand Master. "The connections to the contest's roots -- energy and craziness -- are still all there.
While conceding the impact and influence the World Wide Web has had on the contest, Dye vows to raise the level of the questions asked this year. "I want to make them smarter and harder to find on the Internet. If I could do away with the Internet, I would, but there's no way to enforce that. That's just the world today."
On Sunday evening, in the 50th and final hour of the contest, the trivia masters roll out the toughest "garruda" questions, ending the show with the 100-point, virtually unanswerable "Super Garruda." Two teams last year added their names to Lawrence trivia contest lore by correctly answering it.
Following trivia tradition, last year's Super Garruda will open this year's contest, with Lawrence President Richard Warch doing the honors of asking it.
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For the first time, this year's entire contest will be webcast at www.lawrence.edu/sorg/wlfm.
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