50 years later, 'Reach For The Top' still showcasing high schoolers with all the answers
Tom Kennedy, W5
Published Friday, November 20, 2015 2:02PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 21, 2015 11:08PM EST
Do you know which city in England was home to four young men who went on to become The Beatles?
That question is fairly easy but, if in doubt, the correct answer will be supplied at the end of this article.
A more difficult question perhaps would be: where do the Fahrenheit and Centigrade scales show the same value? Again, answer below. Or, how about: what Canadian high school national trivia competition has lasted for 50 years?
On that last question, I expect most Canadian baby boomers and many of their children, too, came up with the answer in about 5.39 x 10 to the power of minus 43 seconds. Which is, of course, 1 Planck unit, the theoretical, shortest measurable length of time. Just ask a Reach For The Top competitor.
Like Nick Sunderland, a 12th grade student who travelled from Ottawa to Toronto last spring with his high school trivia team for the 49th annual Reach For The Top National Championships.
Sunderland was captain of the team from Lisgar Collegiate -- a high school well known for its academic excellence and success in past Reach tournaments.
Sunderland had been playing Reach with Lisgar for four years, and like most of the players -- passionate about trivia and Reach For The Top.
“I’ve always wanted to know lots and lots about things and Reach gave me an opportunity to test my knowledge,” Sunderland said.
Though many Canadians of a certain age remember Reach For The Top as a TV game show staple from the mid 60s through the 80s, they may be surprised to find out that the game has lived on for a new generation of high school students. There are 355 teams and 3,000 students from across the country who still play Reach in lunchrooms and regional leagues throughout the school year.
And the National Championships are still broadcast -- only now, it’s on the Internet.
So for Sunderland and his Lisgar teammates, being among the 15 teams to make it all the way to the Nationals was a big deal.
“It’s really kind of symbolic -- just in its importance,” he told W5.
Added teammate Aidan Ryan: “You’re sitting in really big seats when you’re there playing the game. People’s grandparents have played; people have gone on to become really important in Canada’s history.”
Reach For The Top first appeared on British Columbia television in 1961. Back then, the game was a series of regional competitions, testing the trivia knowledge of very bright teenagers representing their high schools. The competition caught on, and in 1965, Reach For The Top had become both a national competition, and a hugely popular national television program, the finals being broadcast to audiences numbering in the millions across the country.
If you’re anything like me, perhaps you sometimes look at clearly intelligent young people and wonder what will become of them. It is hardly surprising to learn, that many of the early Reach For The Top competitors went on to become successful and influential writers, lawyers, doctors. There is a former head of the Bank of Canada who was a competitor. And two former prime ministers.
W5 contacted Stephen Harper’s staff and asked to speak to him about his Reach For The Top experiences. At the time, he was still prime minister and was facing that matter of a federal election campaign (the one he lost). We never did hear back. We also contacted Kim Campbell who was prime minister for a brief period back in 1993. She was happy to talk about Reach For The Top, which she described as, “Fun. And fun to do.”
“There’s a competitive nature to it,” she told W5, “a desire to get in there into the fray. It doesn’t surprise me that Stephen Harper and me are both Reach For The Toppers. The competition is natural, knowledge is such a valuable thing. I’m delighted to know I’m part of something that’s been going on for so long.” When I added the words, “It’s been 50 years,” she laughed and said, “Monumental.”
In those first years, the Canadian television landscape was very different beast from the multi-channel, on-demand digital universe of today. Being a regular on one of the relatively few channels available then did not guarantee success, but it tended to get you noticed. And people began to notice one of the Reach For The Top hosts asking the questions.
His name was Alex Trebek. He went from Reach For The Top to becoming the face of Jeopardy, one of the most watched game shows in North America. He spoke to W5 in the Los Angeles studio where the near iconic trivia game show is recorded. One of his most striking memories was the startling intelligence of so many of the competitors.
“They were all so bright,” he said. “And they worked so well together. It was fun, and satisfying.”
He is not surprised so many of the competitors went on to carve out important roles for themselves. “When you look at them, you’re looking at the future of your country. If the kids come across as bright, personable, humorous, you feel better about the future of your nation.”
Back at the 2015 National Championships in Toronto, the student competitors definitely fit that billing. Like their Reach predecessors, they were busy buzzing in and answering complex questions that would have left most of us scratching our heads.
And by the way, Lisgar Collegiate, the team mentioned above, went on to win the National Championship. They returned to their Ottawa school with a trophy, a generous portion of notoriety, and more practice. It never stops. Thousands of students in hundreds of schools across the country, training in trivia, their target now to become the 50th annual national champions of a game some of their grandparents played decades ago.
Finally, we must not forget the questions posed at the beginning of this article. For your pleasure and possible validation -- here are the answers: The Beatles hailed from Liverpool. And the temperature at which Fahrenheit and Centigrade show the same value: that would be -40 degrees.
If you answered correctly, there may be an inner Reach For The Topper in you waiting to emerge. As Kim Campbell might say, that would be “monumental.”