In 1963, a group of four Kenyon students—John C. Gerlach ’63, Neal M. Mayer ’63, Perry Lentz ’64 and Michael P. Underwood ’65—travelled to New York City to compete in the General Electric (G.E.) College Bowl, an NBC prime-time quiz show program.
The team won their first four games, and, according to the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, scored “a record number of combined points in its first four appearances.” The Bulletin also states that “[Kenyon] became the only college in Ohio to survive the first round and—with an all-male enrollment of 583—the smallest college in the nation to advance as far.”
The team would lose in the fifth and final round to the University of Louisville (Ky.), crushing their hopes of ending the show as an undefeated champion.
The G.E. College Bowl was a student quiz show that aired from 1959 to 1970 on both radio and television. The format of the competition was as follows: Two teams of four students would compete head-to-head. The first question was a “toss-up question” worth 10 points. If answered correctly, the team would be given a follow-up question worth 30 points. If not, the other team would have an opportunity to answer the original question.
The game continued in this format for two halves of play; during halftime, each school would present a one-minute promotional video showcasing the unique qualities of their institution. Teams would finish as undefeated champions if they won five games in a row. Winning teams were paid $1,500 for their efforts, losers, $500.
Prior to the Bowl, Kenyon presented students with a series of tests and quizzes with, according to Kenyon College: Its Third Half Century by former College archivist Thomas Boardman Greenslade ’31, “a written examination based on a quiz book put out by the G.E. College Bowl Program.” Almost 50 students took the exam, and the aforementioned four were the final students remaining at the end of the process.
However, significant apprehension was voiced from the student body about the College’s participation in the College Bowl.
An editorial in the Kenyon Collegian written by then Editor-in Chief and current Writer in Residence P.F Kluge ’64 on Jan. 18, 1963 stated: “The College Bowl … is or made to appear … as a contest of intellects, despite all producers’ disclaimers. General Electric knows it isn’t. We know it isn’t … The [moderator] says [the Bowl is] a fun-type quiz-kiddish quick recall contest, of no real significance in measuring a school’s academic quality. But it is doubtful that the five million viewers make such fine distinctions.”
In a later edition of the Collegian, the advisor and coach of the team professor Paul Trescott responded to the apprehension over sending the students to participate in the show.
“The College’s participation can make a positive contribution to the morale and school spirit of the present undergraduate body,” Trescott said. “The mere fact that the College has been selected to participate is a kind of confirmation of its existence and status means something to many students.”
The team’s first game was against Wake Forest University (N.C.) on March 17, 1963. Prior to the match, hope for a successful outing was low. According to the Bulletin, when the squad arrived in New York City (an all-expenses-paid trip that included rooms at the Waldorf-Astoria and tickets to various Broadway shows), the Wake Forest team, which had already won two previous College Bowls matches against University of Missouri-Kansas City and Emory University (Ga.), embarrassed them in a warm-up match.
“You could see that Wake Forest was feeling sorry for these guys from the sticks,” team captain Lentz, who was later hired as an associate professor of English at Kenyon, said.
However, Kenyon upset Wake Forest in a tightly contested 275-245 victory. The shock at their victory was palpable in the room.
According to the Bulletin, Lentz stated, “It was flabbergasting to look at the score … Robert Earle [the show’s moderator] did a double take.”
Wake Forest’s coach David Hills stated that “several unanticipated developments conspired to make the contest even more difficult,” the chief reason being Kenyon had considerably more fans watching the competition in the studio audience.
The team then decimated its next three opponents: They defeated the University of South Dakota (250-205), Clark College (Wash.) (225-150) and Allegheny College by a whopping score of 340-145.
However, on April 14, 1963, the team’s stunning run came to a close. The University of Louisville dashed Kenyon’s dreams of finishing as undefeated champions, beating Kenyon 225-125. However, support for the team was unwavering, and according to the Bulletin, the four boys received a standing ovation during a celebration in Rosse Hall for their efforts.
In the end, the boy’s efforts, according to Greenslade, “won $7,500 [equivalent to slightly more than $60,000 in 2019] in scholarship money for the College.”
Aside from the actual performance, perhaps the most important part of the four men’s success was the recognition their performance brought to the school and the one-minute promotional film that premiered during the halftime of the Bowl.
The Collegian reported that the estimated value for the publicity the school was somewhere around $300,000 dollars, which is almost $2.5 million in 2019 accounting for inflation. The school received congratulatory letters from then-Ohio Governor James Rhodes and every single Congress member elected from the state.
Then-Kenyon President F. Edward Lund was recorded as saying, “the principal value of the program has been the publicity. It has been out of proportion to the money won.”
The one-minute promotion video was directed by then-Collegian film critic Jay Cocks ’66. Cocks would go on to become a film critic for publications such as Newsweek and TIME and write the screenplay for the film Gangs of New York.
The film cycles through the beauty, breadth and uniqueness of the Kenyon experience. It begins with a cluster of students exiting Rosse Hall. The following scenes depict a snowy Middle Path, a class of students engaging with a professor, a well-attended swim meet and a raucous student band performance, before ending with a solemn shot of the Church of the Holy Spirit.
Professor Denham Sutcliffe narrated the video. His final words, the last impression any one one of the potential five million viewers would have of the school, were: “The Ladies visit.”