The master behind the trivia contest

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer March 15, 2014 09:00 am

Q: What will the winning team of this year’s Relay For Life Trivia Challenge have going for it?

A: A keen power of observation.

That’s the only clue Ron Wheeler would divulge regarding today’s fundraising competition, which features a dozen or more community teams. The fun starts at 5 p.m. at Howonquet Lodge in Smith River.

“If you follow the news, if you watch movies at all, I can’t say there’s a really difficult category if you’re an observant person,” Wheeler said. “People say, ‘I don’t want to get involved; I don’t know anything.’ It doesn’t matter. Everyone knows something. And everyone has fun.”

The dinner, trivia contest, silent auction, raffle and — new this year, a half-time bingo game — is a benefit for the American Cancer Society.

And Wheeler has been at the helm of it for the past four years, initially doing it all — publicity, recruiting teams and volunteers, and obtaining food and prizes — but focusing on the trivia itself.

He is a trivia fanatic.

“When you retire, there’s not much to do,” he said. “If you’re interested in fishing, great. If you’re interested in hiking, great. I’m not into those activities. I’m interested in little things.”

Wheeler, however, didn’t just develop this interest in trivial matters when he retired.

Urged by his parents to pursue a degree in teaching — as a launching pad for something better, they said — he fell in love with the career the first day.

“I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer,” he said with a laugh. “But I got to teacher’s college and just knew. Working with young minds, seeing their growth — that’s all I needed. I’ve never needed anything else.”

A few years into it, in Ontario, Canada, he was given a class of a dozen gifted students.

“They were interested in so many things,” Wheeler said. “They were so curious. You always had to be ahead of them, and I had to research whatever it was we were going to see.”

That intense curiosity was contagious, he said.

“I never taught a grade more than three years,” he said. “I always threw away the lesson plans — I was fresh. After retiring after 38 years of teaching, I was as fresh as the day I started. I absolutely loved teaching.”

When he and his wife moved to Brookings, he started a trivia fundraiser with the Presbyterian Church.

In preparation for this year’s challenge, he’s been writing down ideas and researching topics since October.

Daily minutiae — a pattern that intrigues him, or the commonality of television commercials — might capture his imagination and fascinate him to the point of obsession.

He jots down those ideas year-round, and if they interest him enough, he begins to research the topics — Oregon history, U.S. landmarks, movies from the 1950s — for the annual Trivia Challenge.

In past years, they’ve included music — the only category presented every year — ghost towns, matching TV shows with their theme music, national parks, riddles, advertising, food, identifying miniature items, identifying breeds from that year’s Westminster dog show and cartoon characters.

“I’m changing it quite a bit this year,” Wheeler said. “I don’t give the answers all the time; you either know the answers or you don’t. That’ll make it a little more challenging, especially for people who always win.”

That was a dig at the Curry Coastal Pilot, whose staff won the first contest in 2011 and again last year.

This year, too, there will be fewer categories, as some complained the games went on a bit long last year.

“The main challenge last year — as it is every year — is that the merchants give us such strong support,” he said of the donations. “It takes a lot of time to give the prizes out.”

Among the 75 items for the raffle and silent auction are a mandolin, rounds of golf from Salmon Run, $100 from Harbrook Jewelers, restaurants, sporting equipment and baskets of goodies.

“I can’t believe the support of this community,” Wheeler said. “They give so much, and very often they don’t get acknowledged — that’s sad. It’s such a caring community. I think they’d do almost anything for anybody. This is just my way of giving back to the community.”

The organizers are still accepting last-minute teams or individuals for the competition. A team of eight costs $100, and individuals will be grouped together to form a team.

Entry fees include a dinner and about three hours of intense competition.

“Come, enjoy and have fun,” Wheeler said. “That’s what it’s meant to be. Everyone always enjoys themselves. They come in with the expectation that someone at their table is going to know the answer to something. And someone’s out to beat the Pilot this year.”