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For Immigrant Kids, Alex Trebek Was Like A Welcoming 'Uncle'

Burt Thakur fulfilled a lifelong dream of meeting Alex Trebek when he appeared as a contestant on Jeopardy. (Photo courtesy of Burt Thakur)
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Last Thursday, Jeopardy! contestant Burt Thakur's social media started blowing up after an exchange he had with Alex Trebek during a show taping went viral.

Thakur, a 37-year-old electrical engineer from Palm Springs, had been the winner of that episode, which was taped in mid-August and aired last week. Thakur thought the cameras had stopped rolling when he told Trebek how much the host meant to him and his Indian immigrant family.

"My grandfather who raised me ... I'm gonna get tears right now ... I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day," Thakur told Trebek in a clip shared by the Jeopardy! Twitter account. "It's a pretty special moment for me. Thank you very much."

On Sunday, while driving, Thakur got word that 80-year-old Trebek had died of pancreatic cancer. Suddenly feeling shaky, Thakur pulled to the side of the road, and started to cry.

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"I know people get upset when celebrities die," Thakur said, hours later. "To me, he wasn't a celebrity. To me, Alex Trebek was just another uncle."

Alex Trebek speaks during a rehearsal before a taping of Jeopardy! in 2012. (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Tributes to Trebek flooded the internet Sunday, many from people like Thakur who grew up in immigrant families during the 80's and 90's and learned English from watching Trebek wittily banter with contestants and deliver questions in his precise, mellifluous manner.

Over his 36 years of hosting Jeopardy!, Trebek had remained a constant in their lives - even after they mastered English and the internet and adulthood stole their attention.

Trebek's death reminded many of them of how he served as a comforting presence through the upheaval of moving to a new country. For some kids in immigrant families, Jeopardy! was one of the few shows they were allowed to watch.

For others, Jeopardy! was a time for family bonding.

Stand-up comic Francisco Ramos emigrated with his family from Venezuela to the U.S. when he was 12. One of his first memories was landing in a Washington, D.C. airport hotel room and watching Jeopardy!, not understanding a lick of what Trebek was saying. All he knew was Trebek looked "welcoming and honest."

Stand-up comic Francisco Ramos said he not only picked up English from Alex Trebek, but comic timing. (Photo courtesy of Francisco Ramos)
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Jeopardy! would go on to become part of a regular TV habit for Ramos. Trebek's clear enunciation helped him grasp the many idiosyncrasies of the English language.

"It was very easy to understand him, which made it easier for me to learn how to pronounce words," Ramos, 38, said.

Ramos, who lives in Studio City, said that as he got older and English came easily, he started to appreciate Trebek's droll sense of humor. After moving to L.A. in his 20's to be a stand-up, Ramos would think of Trebek as he did his crowd work, how the host would zing contestants by waiting a beat to matter-of-factly respond to something they said.

More than anything, Ramos respected Trebek's willingness to step back and let the contestants shine.

"He was the show," Ramos said, "but he never made the show about himself."

June Yoon of Long Beach also credits Jeopardy! with teaching him English and putting him on the path to the entertainment world.

Yoon emigrated from South Korea to Huntington Beach when he was 14, and was advised to pick up English by watching cartoons and shows like America's Funniest Home Videos. But it was Jeopardy! that appealed to him.

"I could choose to spend time watching slapstick humor of people falling, and fun animals," Yoon said. "Or, I could spend my time being entertained and observing this fantastic guy with a mustache who was asking these really cool questions in this really strange format of answering questions with a question."

Joon Yoon started watching Jeopardy as a 14-year-old South Korean immigrant growing up in Huntington Beach. (Courtesy Patrick Pu)

Yoon said Jeopardy! gave him an appreciation of the English language, and how intonation and delivery can create impact. He's now a voice actor, in both English and Korean.

"That show most definitely accelerated that process, in realizing that there's more than one way to express a thought or an intent," Yoon said.

When Burt Thakur emigrated to the U.S. from India at age eight, he spoke Hindi and Urdu. He knew some English, but it was patchy. When he heard Americans speaking, it felt like a blur of words.

But English started to sound familiar the more nights he spent watching Jeopardy! with his grandfather, Jagdish Mishra, who raised Thakur while his parents worked on their medical careers.

In India, his grandfather had been the chief conservator of forests for the state of Bihar ("I saw him once stare down a charging bull elephant in musk"). Mishra was efficient, punctual, not the type to suffer fools.

"He never spoke badly about anyone, but he never gave anyone too much praise," Thakur recalled. "But with Alex Trebek, he said, 'That's a good man. One day, when you're on that show, thank him for me.'"

Thakur, a Navy veteran who readily quotes Voltaire and William Ernest Henley in conversation, said that he continued to watch Jeopardy! after his grandfather died when Thakur was 11. The show prepped him for spelling bees, he said, and he once represented the state of New York, where his family had settled.

Jeopardy! continued to be a companion for Thakur through adulthood. On naval deployments abroad, the quiz show was a taste of home that made the days go quicker.

When Thakur got the call to go on Jeopardy!, it felt life-changing. He isn't starstruck by anyone, he said, but getting to meet Trebek was "meeting an extension of my grandfather."

Thakur recalled that during the taping, Trebek smiled and joked and put the contestants at ease. There was a moment when he seemed to be in pain, but Trebek pushed through, the consummate professional.

"He would flub a tape. They would retape segments. He would change questions if they didn't make sense, make sure every word was right," Thakur said.

Thakur said it was inspirational to see someone so ill work so hard because of his love and duty to his fans.

"I ask that everyone honors his life and his memory and my grandfather's memory," Thakur said, "by having empathy for your fellow human being today."