Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
The Great Midwest Trivia Contest arrives this weekend for the 57th consecutive year, built and nurtured by Lawrence University students with a passion for trivia traditions that date back more than five decades.
The student-produced contest will begin at 37 seconds past 10 p.m. Friday, streamed on Twitch instead of broadcast on WLFM for the second consecutive year due to pandemic protocols. It will continue for 50 hours, ending at midnight Sunday.
The contest, open to teams on and off campus, arrives in the year in which Lawrence is celebrating 175 years since its founding, giving added attention to the contest’s placement among the university’s most enduring traditions.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some adjustments the past two years, most of the hallmarks of trivia weekend remain—ridiculously obscure questions, the oddly specific starting time, useless prizes, trivia T-shirts, armadillo sightings, and sleep deprivation, among others.
“Some things with the contest have changed, but some things, like the energy of it, are still very much the same,” said senior Riley Newton, an economics major from Austin, Texas, and this year’s trivia head master.
A dozen trivia masters will gather in Briggs Hall during the contest, allowing for greater social distancing than is possible in the WLFM studios. The contest will stream on Twitch with calls coming in via a phone server on Discord. Some traditional phones may be in the mix as well. Registration for the contest will open at 8 p.m. Friday.
The contest went fully digital last year because of the pandemic. It was a huge lift, done out of necessity and a deep desire to keep the contest and as many traditions as possible alive. Lessons learned are being put to use during this year’s contest, which comes as the omicron variant continues to keep campus closed to the public. Last year’s Twitch stream, for example, drew positive feedback, Newton said, in part because trivia players were able to see the questions instead of just hearing them on the broadcast. Some of those elements will likely remain part of future contests even after the pandemic recedes and WLFM comes back in play.
But as the contest continues to evolve, it’s the long-standing traditions that will still connect generations of trivia players—some here in Appleton, others participating from around the world.
“This is a Lawrence contest; it’s a cornerstone of a lot of people’s Lawrence experience,” Newton said. “My Lawrence experience definitely would not be the same without having participated in this contest. It’s going to be one of the fondest memories I have from my time here.”
The contest was first held in the spring of 1966, the brainchild of student J.B. deRosset ’66, who saw it as a needed distraction for a stressed-out student body. When he returned to campus in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of the contest, he said he never expected it to have a second year, let alone become a beloved undertaking for decades to come.
“Going into that first contest, I don’t think any of us contemplated this happening a second time,” he said. “My mind was on being draft eligible for Vietnam, raging hormones, and where to go to graduate school.”
One of the contest’s most esteemed traditions, the awarding of strange prizes, was launched in that first year—the winner received an old refrigerator filled with 45-rpm records. It set the tone that this was going to be weird.
That spirit has endured, as Jonathon Roberts ’05 said when he served as trivia head master in 2005, the contest’s 40th anniversary: “People love the prizes. I mean, where else can you win seven pounds of human hair and a broken TV in exchange for 50 hours of your life?”
The contest that deRosset launched, then 26 hours long and known as the Midwest Trivia Contest (the word “Great” wouldn’t be added until years later), rolled on indeed, picking up speed as it drew audiences and participants from on and off campus.
We caught up with Eric Buchter ’75 as we pondered the contest’s many traditions during this 175th anniversary year at Lawrence. He was the student manager of WLFM for three years during the early 1970s, a time when many of the contest’s traditions were launched.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the trivia contest T-shirt, Buchter said. It has become an annual staple on campus since the first ones were unveiled in 1972.
It also was 50 years ago that the tradition began of the university president delivering the contest’s first question, known then and always as the Super Garuda. That honor has gone to presidents Thomas Smith, Richard Warch, Jill Beck, and Mark Burstein, and this year, for the first time, Laurie Carter.
1972 also was the year when action questions were added to the contest, asking participants to go into the community to answer a question via a physical task. The first one: What is the width of College Avenue in front of Lawrence Memorial Chapel? The question was given at 3 a.m., Buchter said, best to do it at a time when traffic wasn’t flowing while participants were measuring the street.
The following year the contest was moved from Spring Term to Winter Term, launching a tradition that also has continued.
And in 1974, the armadillo became an enduring symbol of the contest, a mascot of sorts, that continues to this day. At the time, Buchter said, there was a running joke on campus of inserting the word armadillo into famous quotations—“Hark! What armadillo through yonder window breaks” was his favorite.
“That year’s joke fad was immortalized on the trivia T-shirt and, I guess, passed into trivia tradition,” Buchter said.
This year’s 12 trivia masters, led by Newton, have been working hard the past few months to prepare a contest that is both steeped in tradition and nimble enough to change course on a moment’s notice. That’s the reality of these times.
“As wild as things are right now, last year was even more so in terms of turning the entire contest on its head,” Newton said.
The appeal of all this trivia craziness? Well, each year, the trivia head master is asked to explain. Newton called trivia weekend an adrenaline rush that hooked them as a first-year and never let go.
Perhaps Weronika Gajowniczek ’15, serving as the head master during the 50th anniversary contest seven years ago, summed it up best: “Trivia is like a 50-hour super bug. You don’t want to eat; you can’t sleep and the whole weekend is pretty much a weird fever dream.”
Let the games begin.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org