Mac McGarry died yesterday. He was the long-time host (over 50 years) of the television quiz show “It’s Academic,” which became and remained an institution in the D.C. metro area for multiple generations.
“It’s Academic” was unique in that it focused on high school students who excelled in academics, or at least answering trivia, as opposed to football, basketball or the usual venues for athletic stardom. The show was taped on Saturday mornings at the NBC studios, then played on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m., just prior to NFL football. Oddly enough, the show drew consistently strong ratings.
For the nerdy teenagers, it was our chance at glory.
In the fall of 1983, I was a sophomore representing Fairfax High School in “It’s Academic.” (My older sister had been on the team the year before). It was a big deal to drive down to the NBC studios, along with the band and the cheerleaders. Basically, it was like I’d died and gone to 1980′s heaven.
In my era, the Virginia public schools were always matched against a Maryland public school and a private school. Historically, Fairfax High School had lost out early. Our team’s sole goal was to make it past the first round.
On that Saturday morning, our competition was Georgetown Prep and Paint Branch High School of Maryland. We got off to a fast start despite a few blunders. My tactic was hitting the buzzer halfway through the question, before the others could answer, and then lobbing a Hail Mary pass for the answer.
(I once heard the words “Soviet satellite” and cut off the question by answering ”Poland.” The actual answer was “Sputnik”).
We made up points in the “speed round” and pulled ahead in the latter stages of the “open round,” with some sharp answers and outright guesses. (“In 1965, the U.S. invaded this Carribbean country …” “Dominican Republic” “You are correct.”)
The last minute of the open round seemed to take an hour. Then it was over. I remember the cheerleaders crowding around and shaking our hands. Be still my heart!
Yeah, we lost the next round. (And lost the next year). But we won that round in 1983, even beating a nationally-known prep school. Fairfax Rebels represent!
Through it all, Mr. McGarry was the host and fixture on the show. Even by my time, he had been doing the show for 20+ years and plenty of teams had second-generation contestants. Giant Food Stores was the ubiquitous sponsor. (Where have you gone, Odonna Matthews, Giant’s friendly consumer advocate?)
Of course, the scholarship money was … sparse. I think it paid for one college class. But we had low expectations. It was all about being on TV and being cool for one day.
Ride on, Mac!