Trivia Time: Lawrence sets the bar when it comes to all things obscure, inconsequential

It wasn’t so much “playing” Lawrence University’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest as a freshman in 2013 that got Jon Hanrahan hooked on the college’s 50-hour minutia marathon.

It was taking a break from answering questions to answering phones at Action Central that turned him into a contest die-hard.

Grand Master Jon Hanrahan (center) and his fellow trivia master’s will oversee the 51st edition of Lawrence’s 50-hour Great Midwest Trivia Contest Jan. 29-31.

“After playing for several hours for Plantz Hall’s legendary Morgan Freeman team, I went to the WLFM studios and spent just as much time answering phones that first year,” said the senior from Johnsburg, Ill. “I remember being thrown off by all the clamor and the commotion, but I also remember thinking, ‘this was something I needed to experience first hand.’”

From humble phone answerer, Hanrahan has risen to become the Grand Master of this year’s contest, the exalted overseer of the 51st edition of the country’s oldest ongoing salute to all-things insignificant.

As per custom, the contest kicks off precisely at 37 seconds after 10 p.m., Friday, Jan. 29 and runs continuously through midnight Sunday, Jan. 31. As it has since 2006, the contest will be webcast worldwide on the Internet at

Questions are asked in three-minute intervals, with teams calling in answers to a bank of a dozen or more phones staffed by volunteers in the WLFM studios.

Last year’s celebratory 50th contest attracted 65 off-campus teams and 29 on-campus teams, with similar numbers expected for this year’s edition.

Orchestrating 50 straight hours of the most complex, unGoogleable questions is not a task Hanrahan takes lightly, even though the contest’s long-standing credo is basically to have fun. Helping him maintain some degree of sanity while overseeing a largely insane endeavor will be 12 hand-picked trivia masters.

Volunteers will be busy answering phones and recording correct answers in the WLFM studios during Lawrence’s 2016 Great Midwest Trivia Contest.

“I have spent many nights staying awake, mulling over detail after little detail,” said Hanrahan, who counts his selection as this year’s Grand Master as one of the “disproportionally” proudest moments of his young life. “The contest is a vast and complex beast. I’ve had at least three dreams about trivia and in each one I had to tend to something that I forgot or didn’t foresee.

“I really trust my co-masters to run an entertaining and relatively stress-free contest,” he added. “I’m excited about their ideas and their somewhat oddball perspectives. We’re all going to push ourselves to write creative questions that really stretch the possibilities of what a Lawrence trivia question can feel like.”

Since making its debut in 1966 as an alternative to an off-campus academic trip known as “Encampment,” where select students went off to discuss esoteric topics with professors, Lawrence’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest has nurtured friendships and sparked romances — at least one set of trivia teammates became husband and wife — while spawning second and even third generation trivia devotees from among the original players.

Haranhan credits the trivia contest’s enduring popularity to Lawrence’s non-traditional “good, smart student.”

“As Lawrentians, we like to follow our passions, but we also tend to want to mess with things,” said Hanrahan, a piano performance major. “Trivia is that chance to be messily intellectual and creative. Do the answers to any of our 400-plus questions really matter? Usually, no. But for some reason, the players keep searching. By the time the weekend is over, the questions and the answers will drift away and yet, because of it all, we will have had a chance to see just about every nook and cranny that exists in the world. And we will have left our strange, ambitious mark.”

While Hanrahan hints at a few new twists up his Grand Master sleeve, he’s not about to reveal any of his plans in advance. It goes without saying, though, no one will be able to answer a single question off the top of their head.

Concentration and great search abilities are useful skills during Lawrence’s 50-hour tribute to all things trivial.

“Even if someone is not aligned with any particular team or if someone is able to only answer one question correctly the entire weekend, we’ll do our best to make the listening itself entertaining,” said Hanrahan, who hopes to pursue a career in radio after graduation.

Following trivia tradition, Lawrence’s president, in this case Mark Burstein, will start the fun by asking the contest’s first question, which, again by tradition, is always the final question — the virtually impossible “Super Garruda” — from the previous year’s contest.

While it proved to be a stumper last year, it should be an easy “get” right out of the gate for every team this time around. To wit: Near property previously owned by Rockwell Lime Company is a manhole built in 1921 with an 8-inch diameter pipe leading downstream 226 feet. What is the manhole label and what is written on the cover of the manhole?

Surely written in notebooks and special files all over campus and around town is the answer “15-47” “Richards Iron Wks” (works).

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College” and Fiske’s Guide to Colleges 2016. Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.