I became a fan of It’s Academic at a surprisingly young age. Maybe I shouldn’t say “surprisingly,” because I was never quite sure who its target demographic was, save for the parents of the kids competing. Nevertheless, every week I would sit unnecessarily close to the TV, patiently waiting for that silly news program to end so I could get to the serious business of trivia. Familiar music and low-budget graphics—-a sharp contrast to Meet the Press—-introduced Mac McGarry, who died yesterday. Every week was the same—-ask questions, introduce the teams, break for high-school cheerleaders—-but for me, it never lost its excitement. Mac McGarry’s easy, erudite nature was on full display as he interviewed the teenage contestants, but I preferred when he switched to asking questions. His pace would quicken and his delivery seemed to rise and fall with the competition; he didn’t direct the excitement so much as he became a part of it. “In 1881, Charles Guiteau…” Buzz. “James Garfield.” “With atomic number 86, this noble…” Buzz. “Radon.” No one knew quite how old Mac was, but age certainly did not slow him down.
Given that early obsession, I was probably fated to become part of the Walter Johnson High School It’s Academic team. Sacrificing lunchtime to sit in a small closet—-what else could we call that tiny room, filled with the overflow supplies of other classrooms—-I joined a bunch of misfits dedicated to learning esoterica and answering questions about obscure historical events as fast as possible. The payoff for my fellow nerds and me was a spot on the TV team. Despite countless other trivia competitions, It’s Ac was the big time. When I got the chance to be on the show my senior year, I was both excited and nervous; pulling up to the NBC4 studios on Nebraska Avenue NW gave me the chills. I had been there in past years to support teammates, but now the cameras would be pointed at me. I quietly hoped I would know at least one of the answers.
Writing purely from memory, I confess I can’t remember if we won or lost that first round. After 10 years, in fact, the only thing that I really do remember is meeting Mac after the taping. For hundreds of high-schoolers, being able to compete on It’s Ac was a big deal, something we worked hard for. Part of the pay-off was getting going to the NBC studios and appearing on something other than the local public-access channel. Looking back, I realize that Mac was essential to that magic, a professional and an entertainer in the best possible sense, even if his celebrity barely stretched past the D.C. suburbs. He had, in his sharp yet casual way, a presence that you felt when he entered the room. Because he had been doing this for so long, or perhaps despite this, he made every taping special for every team involved. Chatting up the contestants and their supporters, it was clear he cared about this weird trivia community as much as we did, and had been a key part of keeping it alive for countless years. I suspect that for those who, like me, participated in It’s Ac and devoted a substantial chunk of their high-school years to answering obscure questions, McGarry will be remembered more than any of the questions he asked. He will be remembered for his persona, his kindness, and his dedication to a bunch of misfits who just wanted to answer questions faster than the other misfits.