December 13, 2013

When you do anything for five decades, especially when you do it as skilfully and warmly as Mac McGarry did, you can touch many lives without even noticing. As the host of “It’s Academic” for 50 years, Mac McGarry saw hundreds of nervous high schoolers pass through his gantlet of trivia. I was one of them. And on behalf of that nerdy high schooler, I just wanted to say: Thank you, Mac McGarry, for making us feel like rock stars.

Growing up, Saturday mornings at 10 were sacrosanct. “It’s Academic” was on, with Mac McGarry and three teams from local high schools, first buzzing in to answer general questions, then each team receiving a round of questions from one of three envelopes (the terror of selecting the envelope!) and then a grab-bag free-for-all. Over pancakes, I shouted answers at the screen and dreamed of one day joining the ranks of those trivia gods who battled it out on the screen and got to touch the hem of Mac’s robe.

My mom and I managed to find an old book of “It’s Ac” questions and we practiced with it until I had the questions memorized along with the answers. (“DUMB OR GLUM,” for instance, was the phrase in which you would find hidden the last name of Gutzon Borglum, carver of Mount Rushmore.)

When I got to high school, actually making it on television was a dream come true. Mac was just as gentlemanly as he seemed, and he actually took the trouble to pronounce your name right. As someone with the last name Petri (it’s PEE-try, not Pet-REE or Pay-tree or Pet-Ry) I have grown to expect any number of strange variants. But Mac took the time to ask. “Pea try,” I said, “like a vegetable that’s making an effort.” And he remembered when I came back the next year. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he spent an hour on the phone with the Russian embassy checking the pronunciation of a word.

“It’s Academic” was a charmed alternate universe where nerds were king and your friends showed up with handmade signs with encouraging slogans — “THE FORCE WILL BE WITH YOU” “DARTH SAYS WIN” “JESUS LOVES WINNERS” (speedily amended to “JESUS LOVES SECOND-PLACE FINISHERS” once the match ended). You almost believed the rest of your life was going to be like this. You would walk into a bar and announce, “I can identify the flags of all nations!” and men would swoon and an adoring public would seize you on its shoulders and bear you aloft. Knowing the presidents by number would be a skill that actually came in handy, rather than just a series of facts that was always less impressive than you hoped, given how much effort was required to work it into conversation.

And this magical world of “It’s Academic” was thanks in great part to Mac. You knew you’d made it if you got to meet Mac McGarry, whether you won or not. “It’s Ac” gave me many of my most treasured friendships and a wealth of great memories (and I’ll never forget who carved Mount Rushmore). I’m sure countless others can say the same. Thank you for everything, Mac.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.