Back when a first-class stamp set you back a nickel and the Beatles’ “We Can Work it Out” was tearing up the pop charts, Lawrence University student J.B. deRosset decided he would try to build a better mouse trap.

While no mice were ever caught with deRosset’s creation, he did manage to ensnare a generation of college students who, for the past 40 years, have turned matters of minutia into an annual 50-hour artform of outrageous questions and answers.

Welcome to the 40th edition of Lawrence University’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest, the nation’s longest-running salute to the obscure and inconsequential, where first-place prizes like toilet seats and bags of Ramen noodles are revered as badges of honor.

Broadcast on the Lawrence campus radio station, WLFM, 91.1 FM, the madness marathon begins Friday, Jan. 28 at the all-too-appropriately insignificant time of 10:00:37 and runs through midnight Sunday, Jan. 30. Fifty continuous hours of off-the-wall questions culled from the minds of a team of student “trivia masters,” all designed to challenge — and occasionally stump — even the best “Googlers.”

In honor of the contest’s 40th birthday, deRosset, who holds near cult-like status among Lawrence trivia diehards, is returning to the scene of the crime, flying to Appleton from his home in Miami, Fla., to spend the weekend as the contest’s guest of honor.

“J.B. is our Great Grand Master, our hero,” said Jonathon Roberts, a senior from Sturgeon Bay who is serving as this year’s trivia grand master. “If it weren’t for him we would just be sitting around staring blankly for 50 hours in a row this weekend. But because of him, we have an actual activity. For many of us, up until now he has just been an untouchable being of history. It will be an honor to finally meet the mythical legend.”

It was the dead of winter of 1966 when deRosset, then a senior at Lawrence, began plotting how to improve an idea he stumbled upon while visiting a woman-of interest who was attending Beloit College at the time.

“Some group at Beloit was putting on a trivia contest at their student union. My only recollection was that it was a lame, pathetic, pitiable attempt,” deRosset recalled of his original inspiration. “I knew it could be done a whole lot better. I came back to campus all enthused about how Lawrence could do a better job at a trivia contest.”

With the help of two friends who worked at the campus radio station at the time, deRosset started tinkering.

“The three of us created the synergy needed to create a weekend radio contest,” said deRosset, 61, who has since built a successful career doing legal and financial planning work for McDonald’s Corporation. “We spent a month or two drafting questions, each of us utilizing our particular specialty. Mine at the time was rock and roll. Somebody else watched too much TV, and another had comic books.”

The first contest — only 26 hours long — hit the airwaves in May of ’66, coinciding with Lawrence’s annual “Encampment Weekend,” an academic retreat in which select students and faculty members headed off to discuss issues of great importance. deRosset engaged those students who were left behind in an intellectual battle of a different sort, asking them to call in answers to esoteric questions asked during the course of a radio broadcast. The team that answered the most questions correctly received a fitting prize for a contest of this ilk: an old refrigerator filled with 45 rpm records.

Forty years later, the Internet has altered the trivia contest landscape — computers and laptops with high-speed network connections have gradually replaced mountains of almanacs, encyclopedias and reference books as the “weapons of choice” — but the spirit of the contest retains much of its original verve.

“Trivia is the perfect relief from the winter blues,” said Roberts. “Everyone is exhausted from the cold this time of year so the idea is, with 50 hours of sleeplessness, we push you over the edge into a world of complete ridiculous exhaustion. That’s the land where real creativity and fun lies.”

“And people love the prizes,” Roberts added. “I mean, where else can you win seven pounds of human hair and a broken TV in exchange for 50 hours of your life?”

At the time, deRosset had no idea his idea would have such staying power. But with the perspective of 40 years, he’s not entirely surprised, either.

“We had such great camaraderie that it was simply a blast that winter of 1965-66 putting together the concept and working on the details,” said deRosset. “I have to believe the same is still true today, even if the academics sometimes get in the way. It is sort of like playing football for USC or the University of Miami, but without the large payoff or the disabling injuries.

“From the listeners’ viewpoint, I don’t believe college humor will ever get old,” deRosset added. “As cable TV pushes the major networks to lower their taste thresholds to newly discovered subterranean depths, maybe the Lawrence trivia contest will not be that different. But I love the team names. I love the irreverence. I love all the strange pieces played during the contest, especially the Monty Python stuff. Most of all I love the brief relief it gives in an increasingly troubled world.”

From “Frying Nemo” and “Apocalypse Cow” to “Smarter Than the Average Bush,” creative, often outrageous and sometimes borderline offensive team names add a playful dash of fun to the weekend.

Playing this year as The West Bank of Kaukauna Concealing Weapons of Mass Deduction, a team of several dozen smarty pants twentysomethings who gather annually from eight states, including California and New York, has dominated the competition in recent years. The Bank, which has won four consecutive trivia titles and six of the last eight, will be among the 60 some teams expected to vie for this year’s off campus title. Joining the 8-10 on-campus teams this year will be a special team made up primarily of recent Lawrence alumni.

Bigger. Stronger. Faster. That is how Roberts promises to make this year’s 40th trivia contest.

“The 40th edition of the contest is a milestone,” said Roberts, “and we’re going to mark the occasion with harder questions, more extreme action questions, more ridiculous skits and more celebrity guest spots. We have been building this up
for 40 years now and let me tell you, trivia, like life, begins at 40.”

To help celebrate trivia’s 40th birthday appropriately, Roberts has organized a special “pre-contest” party Friday, Jan. 28 from 7:30-9 p.m. in Riverview Lounge of the Lawrence Memorial Union for all the trivia teams to gather and meet each other prior to waging their battle of wits.

New Lawrence President Jill Beck will make her trivia debut by asking the contest’s opening question, which by tradition, is always the final “Super Garruda” question from the previous year. All those paying attention should be able to start this year’s contest with an easy 100 points because they will know by now what casts a shadow on Jesus in the DeBakey Room in the Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. Last year, no team was able to correctly identify the cupped hands on a sculpture of Dr. Michael DeBakey as the source of the shadow.

For additional information on the contest or how to register, visit http://www.triviaxl.com.

In addition to being broadcast on WLFM, the entire contest also will also be webcast at www.lawrence.edu/sorg/wlfm.