Extreme Trivia and Tradition: Lawrence University’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest

By Hillary Armstrong

It is that time of year again, when the cold of January in Wisconsin has all of us huddled indoors looking for entertainment. Well, fire up your computers, make sure the routers and modems are all functioning properly, and prepare for Lawrence University’s annual Great Midwest Trivia Contest, a 50-hour salute to all things insignificant and arcane!

The 400-question marathon, once appropriately described in the Chicago Tribune as “sort of a combination of ‘Animal House’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ kicks off precisely at 10:00.37 p.m. Friday, January 24 and ends at midnight Sunday, January 26.

Founded in 1966, Trivia Weekend is now considered to be the country’s longest running trivia contest, thanks to the tradition of the university president opening the annual contest by asking the last question, known as the “Super Garruda,” from the previous year.

Last year’s question: Within a sculpture by Mike Sullivan, the creator of “The Sex Life of Robots,” there is a building called “Kino Ironhole.”  What is carved into the pavement to the left of the word “lulu?”   Make a note: “Big Unit Jizzbot”

The webcast weekend is led by Lawrence students, dubbed “Trivia Masters,” asking an eclectic variety of questions, one every three minutes and filling in time with features such as usual theme hours, diverse music, and crazy action questions. The points per question vary throughout the contest with the last hour’s questions worth the most. Teams call in answers to a phone bank in the WLFM studio.

Addie Goldberg, a senior psychology major from Needham, Massachusetts, and this year’s Trivia Grand Master, described the event as a “post-adolescent unleashing.”

“You have a bunch of on-the-verge-of-over-educated students, holed up in winter in Appleton, coming off of break and looking at the long stretch ahead,” Goldberg explained. “We give them a reason to drop some responsibilities for the weekend, hang out with friends, roll in the snow, drink, and stare at computers.”

The on-campus teams are often challenged with action questions.  These provide a means for getting more students involved. Goldberg said players recruit their friends, even if they are not officially playing, to participate in the action questions.  “These activities get the students and campus community extra involved and extra buzzed,” he said.

The actions questions, while fun and certainly interesting, can cause a significant disadvantage to the on campus-teams because they interfere with the ability to continue to answer questions in the three-minute format. To help offset this disadvantage, winners are selected from on-campus and off-campus categories.

From the obscure start time, to the ridiculous prizes, traditions run strong throughout the weekend.  The times have dictated some change, most notably the switch from a radio broadcast format to the live webcast format of today, but many long standing traditions still remain steadfast in place—both on campus and off.  Many are not easily explained, such as the armadillo mascot or the Toto theme song “Africa.”

There are different themes to various hours of the contest, such as “Zombie Hour,” “Kurt Russell Hour,” “NPR Hour,” “Girl Hour,” and the famous “Death and Destruction Hour.”  The contest ends with the “Garruda Hour,” the hardest questions and the virtually unanswerable “Super Garruda.”

If you are looking for a big payout, this is not your event!  Prizes have included such treasures as pink flamingos, bedpans, a 50-pound block of salt, tacky plastic pants, cigarette butts in a mayonnaise jar, a soap carving of a bear eating Sarah Palin, a now solid Stretch Armstrong doll, and a box of rocks autographed by the trivia masters.  Maybe it is best explained by the credo of the weekend: “Trivia is meant to be entertainment and should be perceived solely in that light.”

While the trivia contest is considered one of the long-standing traditions of Lawrence University, it is perhaps even more popular among the off-campus crowd. While radio broadcasting previously restricted the contestants to a limited geographic area, today’s webcast format allows players from all over the world to call in answers. Though the capability is available to play from far away, it seems that many teams/players still like to uphold the tradition of returning to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin to compete.

Kevin Brimmer, host of “The Iowans” team (their name changes each year, but always has an Iowa reference) remembers going to buy a snow blower, so that he could get friends on his team into his driveway for the weekend. That same year, some of his teammates from Minnesota did not make it until Sunday due to the snowstorms.

The Iowans have a plethora of their own traditions.  They are a core group of Drake University friends who have been playing for 29 years. They always eat chili cheese dogs for lunch on Saturday of trivia weekend, a tradition that Brimmer started as a joke. It was the traditional meal served in the dorms on Saturday afternoon when they were in school.  After he introduced it one weekend, it stuck. They also have a lava lamp they rub for good luck, a leg lamp that shines in his house, and an Iowa flag they take to the awards ceremony.

Technology has been very good to his team. They have some very computer-savvy players, and like many other teams, they have created their own search engines and databases of information. Gone are the days of putting up bookshelves and all players shipping in books, magazines, and other research materials. Now the biggest preparation goes into making sure there is enough toilet paper and Diet Coke on hand.  They have also learned that it is best to take the Monday after off work.

The Trivia Pirates-AARRGH is one of the most successful off-campus teams in the history of the contest.  While they have had a few name changes in the past, they now play under the same name year to year. The team’s leader, Dave VanHeertum, began playing trivia as a teen in 1978.  This team loads up the house with pirate decorations for the weekend, complete with a six-foot mechanical pirate that has been know to take on a life of its own.  VanHeertum recounted a story from his high school days playing trivia.

“We approached the city council and asked to rent the library for the weekend,” said Van Heertum.  “Thinking that we were not serious and nothing would really come of this request, the council told us that if we could ensure parental supervision at all times and obtain a $35 million insurance policy, we could rent the library. They were most surprised when we turned in the paperwork!”

Though the team has changed significantly over the years, and that was the only year they played in the library, their record indicates that they seem to have their resources well honed. Like many teams they still have a core group, but they indicated that they have found the need to have multigenerational players. Both Brimmer and Van Heertum recounted stories of trying to find answers to questions, only to have their young children yelling the correct answer from another room.

These teams, as well as many others, have discovered the advantage of passing the trivia tradition to the next generation. “We have found ourselves getting older, but the Trivia Masters’ age stays the same,” said Van Heertum.  “It is a challenge.”

So dust off your computer and tighten your connections, catch up on your sleep, and get ready to have some fun. The contest is scheduled to be broadcast over the campus radio station website

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