When Josh Hager was looking for a break in his graduate studies at NC State a few years ago, he would often host Jeopardy parties for his fellow graduate students in the master’s program in public and applied history. Hager would prepare the questions (or should that be answers?) and even play the role of Alex Trebek for a night of trivia with his friends.
“It worked out wonderfully,” says Hager, who earned his master’s from NC State in 2011.
The same could be said of Hager’s appearance on the actual Jeopardy show last week. Hager, in an appearance that was taped in July, won $26,100 in his first game. He lost in the second game, but walked away knowing that he could pay off some student loans and always call himself a Jeopardy champion.
Hager, 27, is also part of another exclusive club — he has earned degrees from all three of the Triangle’s major universities. A native of Fayetteville, N.C., Hager earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Duke before deciding that he wanted to work as an archivist. So he did a dual-degree graduate program with NC State, where he earned a master’s of arts in public/applied history in 2011, and UNC, where he earned a master’s of science in information science in 2013. He now works as a correspondence assistant at the State Archives of North Carolina.
“I love the fact that I get to work with North Carolina history every day,” Hager says. “It is common for me to work with 200-year-old documents ever day. What really is most rewarding to me is helping people find what they are looking for.”
Hager says he roots for Duke in football, largely because they were so bad on the gridiron when he was in school there. But he roots for NC State in basketball. “Having gone to Duke and NC State first, I was trained to not root for Carolina,” he says. (But he is quick to add that he got a great education at UNC.)
Hager also appreciates NC State for not adding to his debt — he earned a full ride at NC State by working as a teaching assistant. His debts are from loans he took out to study at Duke and UNC. “My experience at NC State was great,” he says. “I had great professors and great classes. I still keep in touch with the people at State, more so than at the other schools.”
Given his love of history and trivia, it was a lifelong dream for Hager to compete on Jeopardy. He passed an online Jeopardy test last year and was invited to regional tryouts in Tampa, Florida. He then got a call from the show in June, telling him to be in Los Angeles in July for a taping.
Hager boned up for his appearance by watching old shows. “It gave me an idea of what kinds of questions they might be asking,” he says. “Instead of studying all of classical music, there are several composers they tend to focus on.”
Hager figured history would be a strong suit, along with the categories dealing with literature or sports. He swept a category dealing with literature on his first show and a category dealing with the National Football League on his second show. He struggled with a category dealing with the “Cinema of Steve McQueen” (“I can name Bullitt and The Great Escape.“) and a category on artists (“The previous champion was an art history professor.”).
Despite his success, Hager says he never felt like he figured out the timing for buzzing in to give an answer. He says he unsuccessfully tried to buzz in several times.
Jeopardy tapes five episodes a day, so Hager had a lunch break between the taping of his first show and his second show. That meant that he was the reigning Jeopardy champion for about two hours.
“At least I had that little moment of time when I had time for it to sink in,” he says. “The other contestants were happy for me.”
They had lunch in the cafeteria at Sony Pictures, where Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are taped, and Hager saw some people dressed up in World War II-era gear for some sort of production. Hager says he didn’t have any interaction with Wheel contestants, but says the Jeopardy folks made it clear that they were expected to behave differently than contestants on the neighboring game show.
Hager says they were told that if they won, “they should be happy and celebrate, but not jump up and down and shout.”
“That’s more of a Wheel of Fortune reaction,” Hager says they were told. “Accept your victory with grace.”