“I’ve been a ‘newsaholic’ ever since I was 10 years old,” says Jim Wasowski. “I read the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times every day, and I loved to watch Walter Cronkite on TV.” It was almost an obsession, and it has stood Jim Wasowski in good stead ever since. Growing up in South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame University, he breezed through grammar school and high school. “At that time I thought I wanted to be a pharmacist,” he recalls, “and I don’t know why, but when I took chemistry in my junior year, I got the only C I ever received in my entire academic life.” That persuaded Jim to follow his other passion: history. “That worked out pretty well,” he admits. Read on.
After high school he went on to…not Notre Dame, but Indiana University in Bloomington. Why not Notre Dame? “I was smart enough to get in, but it was too expensive,” he says, “and I wanted the experience of living in a college dorm away from home. So IU was a good choice.” He worked in the dining hall, took summer jobs and received enough grant money to meet the $1700 yearly expense for tuition, room and board. Jim was the only member of his family of six to graduate from college.
Jim got a degree in education with a major in history, and he later went on to earn graduate degrees in history and humanities. When he finished his B.A. at Indiana in 1969, he joined the faculty of John Marshall Senior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. “It was by far one of the best high schools in the country,” Jim says. And it was big. “About 4,000 students in three grades. I taught every kind of history class you could imagine. I also taught social studies, humanities, political science, current events and economics at one time or another in my 31 years there.” And he made his classes interesting. How? He challenged his students. He involved them, with skits, games, rapid-fire questions, even comedy.
“To be a history teacher, you need to have a sense of humor,” he says. For him, every class was a performance, and he loved it. Jim got the kids’ attention in class right away. If you’ve met him, you know that he has a powerful voice and a dominating presence. He’s entertaining. He makes eye contact, and he establishes a relationship with his audience. He’s the boss, but he listens, too.
“I taught every type of kid, and every mix of kids,” he says, having been in the classroom through segregation, busing and reintegration. And his classes were popular with all of them. “To teach history, you have to be the devil’s advocate: challenge whatever your students say and make them defend their point of view,” he adds. “History is everything that happened, and everything that happened is history.” But the history we read in books and see in newsreels was written by the survivors—usually the winners. What we define as “facts” can be seen differently by different people, even by eyewitnesses to the same event. The facts can be strung together with reasoning or with rationalization. Our emotions can outweigh our logic, and biases can impair our analysis. Our personal views and our mores can change over time. What was seen as criminal or errant behavior in one generation can be perfectly acceptable in another.
Jim was able to get all this and more across to his students. And he was good enough at it to be named the Ohio Teacher of the Year in 1977 by the National Humanities Faculty. In 1993 he was one of a small group of teachers chosen to represent America in a one-month exchange program with Japan, and he considers it his proudest accomplishment. For the last five or six years of his career, he was chairman of John Marshall’s history department. And it was at John Marshall that Jim first established his reputation as “Trivia Jim,” a man who could beat you at the game or host it for you, a la Alex Trebek.
“It started on the very first Friday of my very first week as a teacher,” he says. It had been good week, and the kids had accomplished what he wanted them to. Friday was the day before the opening game of the football season, and the kids were all hyped for the weekend. With about 10 minutes left in his world history class, Jim said, “All right, we have a little time left, and I’m going to challenge you guys to a game of trivia. Four categories: sports, movies, TV and history. I’ll ask the 35 of you a question, and if you get it right, you get a point. Then you can ask me a question, and if I get it right, I get a point. If you win the game, there’s no homework for the weekend. But if I win, I’m going to give you more homework than you can possibly imagine.”
Jim doesn’t say who won that first game, but the idea really appealed to the students. Word got around the campus quickly, and the Friday trivia game became a fixture. “We did it just about every week for 31 years,” he says. The kids prepped for it, they got their classwork done so they could play trivia on Friday, and they learned a lot in the whole process.
Jim had developed many interests when he was growing up. “I played basketball and baseball, and I loved sports. As a family, we watched a lot of TV, and I loved the shows, the movies, the news, politics and history. I played the keyboard pretty badly, but I loved rock ‘n roll. So I learned quite a bit about all those things, and for some reason it stuck in my head. And as a family we played trivial pursuit a lot.” He was a bright young man with an excellent memory and a love for many different facets of life. Sounds like a perfect candidate for “Jeopardy!” And he was.
In 2010 Jim applied to become a contestant for the show and took a series of tests along with thousands of other applicants. He made it to the final pool of about 100 persons from which the live show contestants would be drawn. “From there on,” he says, “it was a matter of demographics.” They wanted a mix of contestants, male and female, young and old, with different backgrounds, racial characteristics, careers and experiences. Jim didn’t get selected, but he was happy to know he was among the top applicants. “One thing you can say about the contestants on ‘Jeopardy!’ is that they’re all very, very smart,” he swears.
Jim retired from John Marshall in 1999 and moved to Florida in 2000. He was still paying for the education of his two children, Nettie and Matthew, and he needed a part-time job. He took on a teaching assignment at Edison College in Punta Gorda, and after hitting the trivia circuit at area restaurants and bars for a while, decided he could run a better trivia game himself. On December 4, 2004, at The End Zone restaurant in Englewood, he ran his first trivia game as a paid host. “It was an immediate success, and it just took off from there,” he says. Since that game he has hosted over 1,800 more in the local area.
He’s usually accompanied by his wife Connie, but his is a one-man show. He has compiled an enormous portfolio of questions and answers over the years—all of which he has vetted to be sure they are correct and can at least be answered with an educated guess. Each question is assigned a difficulty value from 1 to 8, and in his games he has eight rounds of increasing difficulty. “I’m reasonably certain that for the first 1,500 games, at least, I’ve never asked the same question twice,” he avers. He digs up questions by (among other things) voluminous reading of newspapers and books, following the news on TV and spending a few hours a day on the internet. The questions can be on any topic: movie oaters, presidential nicknames, rental prices in big cities, airport names, Oscar winners, Olympic champions or British politics, for example.
During the last 15 years he has accumulated some 600 followers, and he stays in touch via a website and Facebook page. A fair number of those followers have attended every one of his 1,800+ games. And he freely admits that he has “attracted the most intelligent people in the area” to be there for his performances.
And why not? After all, he is a master of facts, and he may well be the best show in town. There’s nothing trivial about that.
Jim’s trivia game is held at 7PM every Tuesday at the Englewood Elks Club. You can email Jim at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: email@example.com. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.