Fenwick teacher wins Jeopardy teachers tournament
Fenwick teacher Colby Burnett was a big winner on "Jeopardy!" and will compete in the Tournament of Champions. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 30, 2012 6:14AM
OAK PARK — Colby Burnett wasn’t born with a love of trivia.
But when he was ostracized or bullied as a child, he read whatever he could get his hands on, which included volumes of the encyclopedia.
Burnett, a history teacher at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, recently put that thirst for knowledge to good use: He was the winner of the recent “Jeopardy!” Teachers Tournament, which pitted 15 educators from across the country against each other on the quiz show.
Burnett won the tournament in October; the final episode aired Nov. 20.
A 2001 Fenwick graduate, Burnett began teaching history courses at the school in fall 2011. He said his time as a Fenwick student helped shape who he is.
Burnett’s school pride is no secret. Fenwick Principal Peter Groom said the only piece of jewelry Burnett has ever purchased is his Fenwick class ring. His bet in the final “Jeopardy!” episode was $1,929 – the year the high school was founded.
“I always felt I should give back in the best way I knew how,” Burnett said. “And I always felt, if I were to come back here, teaching young people, I would be happiest, and that idea has kind of borne fruit.”
Burnett also is the head coach of the school’s scholastic bowl program, something he excelled in as a student.
In February, friends suggested the Northwestern University graduate take the online “Jeopardy!” test, which offers 50 questions in six minutes. Burnett got all but one or two questions right.
From there, he went through a vetting process in May in Chicago, where he answered test questions and participated in a mock game. Show producers called in August, asking if he’d like to take part in the “Jeopardy!” Teachers Tournament.
Burnett was flown to Los Angeles the last weekend in September for the show’s taping, which lasted a few days. On TV, the 15-person tournament was whittled down within two weeks.
The question that sealed it for Burnett asked who made the 1992 film “El Mariachi,” which he has seen. The answer: Who is Robert Rodriguez?
The quiz show wasn’t easy. Burnett trailed in each game, but said he remained focused.
“I just kind of fell back on what I’d been taught and what I’d been studying,” he said. “Knowledge is knowledge. You can get as much money knowing about Dr. Jonas Salk as you can about Dr. Dre.”
Though students and coworkers pestered him, Burnett had to keep his win a secret after returning from California. There was a buzz around the school as the “Jeopardy!” episodes aired, Groom said, and hundreds of students attended viewings that took place at the school.
“I think that bodes well for us, when we have one of our teachers win like he did,” Groom said. “You have living proof there that he can back up what he’s trying to teach students.”
Burnett has no plans to keep any of the $100,000 of prize money. Instead, he’s using it to buy an Oak Park condo for his mother, Wilma Green, who lives in the nearby Austin neighborhood of Chicago.
“It’s all going to the Wilma Green foundation,” he joked.