Professor reflects on claim to fame

We have all seen game shows. You’re lying to yourself if you say you haven’t yelled at the TV, “Aw, come on! That’s not the answer!”

But to actually be on a TV show is a whole different experience, an experience that not many of us have had the privilege to go through.

However, Pat Headley, Ph.D., of the mathematics department at Gannon University has been on two game shows –  “Jeopardy!” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

With his calm demeanor he would be one of the few who wouldn’t yell at the TV because the contestant didn’t get the question correct.

His first experience with a game show wasn’t actually his idea.

While in graduate school in 1990 at the University of Michigan, a local TV station in Ohio, where he is from, was holding auditions for “Jeopardy!” and his parents signed him up for the tryouts because they thought he had a good chance at making it.

The tryouts started with about 100 people being given a quiz then, after the results of the quiz came back, the remaining 12 participated in a mock, low-tech version of “Jeopardy!”.

After being chosen from that, he went on to Hollywood to compete in the real version of the popular TV show.

Something Headley said is not widely known is that the producers actually tape all of the shows for an entire week in one day.

“At first I was in the lead but then nerves caught up with me and got the best of me, so I got second place,” he said.

Unfortunately, only the first place winners are able to keep their cash prize, but Headley didn’t walk away empty handed.

“I received a trip for two to the Bahamas and also a three- day stay in Disney,” he said.

His road to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was different from the one that lead to “Jeopardy!” Headley said he took the initiative on this one.

He called the 1-800 number for the show to complete a question – “Put these events in chronological order”— over the phone.

He called again and again and it was a random draw that led him to the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” stage in May 2004 just after Gannon let out for the summer.

But on this show he did win cash. No, no, not the coveted $1 million prize, but he did come close.

“It was a special week so you could have two life lines for the last question; you had the night to think about whether or not you were going to answer it or not,” he said.  “If I would have gotten it right I would have won a million dollars, if I would have guessed and got it wrong I would have got $100,000 and if I chose not to answer it I would have walked away with $500,000.”

The possible outcome of becoming a millionaire, losing almost all of it or taking the middle ground was a taxing decision.

“I walked around the city that night with my wife to discuss it,” he said. “And we decided that the risk was too great of losing $400,000.”

So the next day he passed on answering the $1 million question.

And even though he says now that he probably could’ve answered it right, he’s confident in his decision to play it safe.

Oh, and that winning question, “What was the name of the Indian tribe at the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims?” They were the Wampanoag tribe, so now if you’re ever on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” you have no excuse not to try and win the $1 million.

So what did Headley do with his winnings? He probably did the most exciting thing one could do with that kind of money – he saved it for retirement.

But he also took his wife and two kids to Japan where his wife once taught ESL to reunite with some of her friends that she made there.

His other “splurge” was going to England to visit family. He’s proud to say that his children have been across two oceans.

Now how do you go from being on game shows to being a math professor?

“I love the creativity of math and that at a certain point no one knew how to solve something,” Headley said. “I have always had a natural knack for numbers and I like the certainty of it.”

Although, fret not, he said he does understand the anxiety it brings those of us who loathe math.

Headley has also written articles about the mathematics of both shows for Math Horizons, a publication from the Math Association of America.

With his spare time Headley said he likes to read.

“I like to stay interested in a lot of things, like history,” he said. He also sings in his church choir and enjoys all kinds of music.

Living in Erie and raising his children here have proved to work out well for him.

“I love the trails near the peninsula,” he said. “Erie has done well for me. There’s more going on than people think.”

We will have to take your word on that one.

 

HOLLY ZILL

[email protected].gannon.edu