Quiz Kids

Video Extra

Jay Cocks '66 recently shared an original College Bowl half-time video featuring Kenyon College. Watch the clip.

Toss-Ups and Bonuses

Here are some samples of each, representing the academic challenge that faced Kenyon's 1963 team. More...

For five consecutive Sundays in March and April of 1963, millions of Americans—“loitering between Lassie and Bachelor Father ,” in the words of the Collegian—watched the “little college that could” flex its intellectual might on the General Electric College Bowl, a popular, nationally televised quiz show that aired on CBS and NBC from 1959 through 1970.

The Kenyon team of two seniors, a junior, and a sophomore won its first four matches before bowing to the University of Louisville, just missing in its bid to retire as an undefeated champion.

Despite the defeat, Kenyon left a record of accomplishment. Appearing in College Bowl's fifth season, it became just the sixth school to make five appearances, scoring a record number of combined points in its first four appearances. It became the only college in Ohio to survive the first round and—with an all-male enrollment of 583—the smallest college in the nation to advance as far.

The exposure put Kenyon on the map for the masses. It generated thousands of dollars in alumni contributions and attracted new students from all over the country. The College was able to showcase its Collegiate Gothic campus with a one-minute College Bowl film, directed by Jay Cocks '66—who went on to become a nationally known film critic and screenwriter. “Even in Ohio, there was a serious question whether Kenyon was known at all until the Bowl came along,” wrote The Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time.

Risky business
The “brain team”—as headline writers dubbed the men—managed its success despite low expectations, some on-campus resistance to its participation, and relationships among members that were cordial, but not especially close.

Professors encouraged their best and brightest students to try out. Dozens answered the call, with the four finalists culled from a series of written and oral exams. Under the direction of coach and advisor Paul B. Trescott, an economics professor, the brain team consisted of honors English majors Perry Lentz '64 and John C. Gerlach '63, honors history major Neal M. Mayer '63, and mathematics major Michael P. Underwood '65.

With an estimated five million viewers, the College Bowl was near the peak of its popularity in 1963. It had won a Peabody Award in 1960 for outstanding achievement in television broadcasting. Mayer was a fan who watched from home. “When I was in high school, I dreamt of being on that program,” he said. “That was something I always wanted to do. There was no question I was going to try out.”

The others were honored to be chosen, but their reactions were subdued. “It looked like a lot of pressure to me,” said Lentz, whom Trescott named captain. “I didn't know the show at all,” Gerlach added.

From the moment Kenyon considered assembling a team, the Collegian opposed participation. In an editorial published on January 18, 1963, weeks before the team was selected, editor P.F. Kluge '64 derided the G.E. College Bowl as a “well-intended debasement of every principle in education for which Kenyon allegedly stands.” The criticism “didn't have any effect on us,” Gerlach said. “We thought it was kind of silly and brushed it off.”

In response to the editorial, the faculty recorded its approval for participation and the students favored it 6-1, according to a show of hands at a January 21 assembly. Trescott pointed out the positives such as boosting morale and generating publicity. “We must remember that the College Bowl idea was started by the students,” he said.

Kluge, now writer-in-residence at Kenyon, still defends his stance, despite the team's triumphs. “I don't mean to honk people off again after nearly fifty years, but I was trying to get thoughtful about what was at risk and what might be gained,” he said recently from his office in Finn House. “To stake our reputation on a quick-recall game show struck me as something that should be promptly rejected.”

Against All Odds
The paper's fear of embarrassment appeared to be well founded during preparation and practice for the team's first game against Wake Forest College on March 17. The squad lost two scrimmages on campus against a pick-up team of Kenyon students that included Kluge. “We had a face-off in Hill Theater that was pretty well attended and the scores weren't even close—the other students just crushed us,” recalled Lentz, who considered Kluge a friendly rival in the English Department.

Their prospects continued to appear bleak when the students arrived in New York City—an all-expenses paid trip that included rooms at the Waldorf-Astoria and Broadway show tickets. The Sunday show-day schedule typically included a briefing with moderator Robert Earle, lunch with the producer, and two rehearsal games. “I was excited, yes, and a little bit intimidated,” said Underwood, the youngest team member.
The Lords seemed ready for a quick exit when two-time winner Wake Forest blistered them in the rehearsal games. “You could see that Wake Forest was feeling sorry for these guys from the sticks,” said Lentz, who predicted defeat when he bumped into his parents during an anxious walk outside the studio shortly before air time.

However, when the show went live at 5:30 p.m., the men responded to the pressure. Gerlach put Kenyon on the scoreboard when he correctly stated that an object falling for three seconds would be traveling at the rate of 96 feet per second, according to an account of the match in the Mount Vernon News. “It was the first time in six hours that we were ahead,” Lentz said. In a nip-and-tuck tussle, Kenyon upset Wake Forest, 275-245. “I was shocked that we won,” Mayer said. So too was the moderator. “It was flabbergasting to look at the score,” Lentz said. “Robert Earle did a double-take.”

To the sound of victory bells on campus, Kenyon vanquished its next three opponents: the University of South Dakota (250-205), Clark College (225-150), and Allegheny College (350-145). The men were brave enough to “buzz in” early with answers, before the questions had been fully asked, often extracting knowledge from the deepest recesses of their minds. “I would never say we were smarter than the other teams, but we had a lot of information in our heads that we could recall quickly,” Mayer said. “We had information we didn't even know we had. We'd ring in and wonder, ‘Where did that answer come from?' But we were all kids who read a lot.”

Trescott intentionally assembled a squad of diverse personalities and interests. “We didn't bond,” said Mayer. “We were a team, but we didn't get close.” Underwood recalled meeting Lentz once after graduation. “I haven't kept in touch with anybody,” he said. Trescott described the Kenyon players as “very individualist,” but with a sense of unity. “Our success may be due to the varied interests, temperaments, and personalities of these four men,” Trescott said at the time.

Lentz believes losing the practice games at Kenyon steeled the team for adversity. “We were used to losing, while the other teams sort of went into paralysis when they fell behind. After we beat Wake Forest—which was sort of a miracle—to me we were playing with house money,” Lentz said.

Sudden impact
During the run, letters and telegrams poured in to the College. “The amount of mail is amazing,” President F. Edward Lund told the Collegian. “We received congratulatory telegrams from [Ohio] Governor [James] Rhodes and the entire Ohio delegation to Congress.” On the Saturday before Easter, Admissions Director W. Tracy Scudder Jr. was surprised to find about a dozen prospective students in the admissions office on a traditionally slow day, “looking over Kenyon for 1964.”

Diners and cabbies in New York City occasionally recognized the boys from the show. “That's my favorite program,” one taxi driver gushed upon meeting Lentz. “Wait until I tell my wife I met you.” Viewers in high places responded to brief on-air statements from the students. Lentz heard from three publishers interested in reading the manuscript for his first novel. Underwood opened letters from science industries. Gerlach received a long letter from Paramount Pictures refuting his opinion that American films fell short of foreign film standards. “I don't remember, but it would have been just like me to say something like that,” Gerlach said.

As Kenyon was poised to retire undefeated, the victory bells fell silent on Easter Sunday, April 14, when the team lost 225-125 to the University of Louisville. Trescott graciously conceded that “the best team won,” but team members were not so sure.

The questions focused on art and music, the Kenyon quartet's weakest areas. “I had the feeling the questions were tilted against us,” Underwood recalled. Gerlach attributed an off day to fatigue. “I felt I let people down, but I was just plain pooped from weeks of flying out there and rehearsing every weekend,” he said. “I wish we could have won. It was disappointing to go that far and not be able to close it out. I felt that if we could have faced them again when we were fresh, we could have beaten them, but they got the best of us on that day.” The outcome upset Mayer, who said, “We just weren't as fast [as Louisville]. More times than not we knew the answers, we just didn't get to them as quickly as the other side.”

Despite the loss, the team returned to a heroes' welcome on campus, arriving Monday morning to a standing ovation during a celebration at Rosse Hall. “It was tremendous, a good deal more than I expected,” Underwood said. “It made me feel pretty good.” President Lund anticipated alumni contributions of $5,000 to $6,000. The team won $6,500 in scholarships, but “the principal value of the program has been the publicity,” President Lund said. “It has been out of proportion to the money won.”

The Mount Vernon Area Chamber of Commerce named the students as city ambassadors, and, during commencement exercises in 1963, the College awarded each team member the E. Malcolm Anderson Cup, given to the undergraduate who has done the most for Kenyon during the current year. This was the first time the award had been shared.

Team members graduated to excel in their professions. Lentz, of Gambier, is professor emeritus at Kenyon, past chair of the Department of English, author of four books, and building namesake for Lentz House on campus. Gerlach, of South Euclid, Ohio, is professor emeritus at Cleveland State University, past chair of the Department of English there, and an award-winning author. Underwood, of Arlington, Virginia, is an information specialist for the United States Army. Mayer, of Millsboro, Delaware, is a well-known maritime lawyer, who served seven years on Kenyon's Board of Trustees, was president of the Alumni Council, and was honored in 1998 with the Gregg Cup for alumni involvement.

Mayer received an honorary doctorate in 2007, when his Honors Day speech addressed the personal impact of the College Bowl as an experience that has reverberated throughout his life. “The College Bowl was important to everything that happened to me in the future,” Mayer said. “It gave me the ability to believe that I could do almost anything.”

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