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In fall of ’61, Pomona whiz kids ruled TV quiz

 Fifty years ago this weekend, Pomona College was swept up in the culmination of what campus newsman George Sweeney called Pomona’s “giddy five weeks in the wonderland of big-time New York City television.”

It was fall of 1961, and every Friday, Matthew Cartmill ’64, Dallas Holmes ’62, David Renaker ’63 and Richard Wilsnack ’64 boarded a jetliner for the Big Apple. There, they were put up in a swanky hotel, given tickets to the best Broadway shows and loosed for a day to take in Manhattan. Come Sunday morning, they were to arrive at the stage door of CBS Studio 52 and report to the set of the General Electric College Bowl.

The popular quiz show pitted two teams of students representing their schools against one another. Deftly coached by philosophy professors Robert Fogelin and Morton Beckner, Pomona’s “fabulous foursome,” as one campus publication dubbed them, had been chosen from among more than 100 student who tried out. The College had high hopes for a good performance on the program and the publicity it would bring.

“It was a big deal at Pomona. I think it was probably a bigger deal at Pomona than it would have been at a larger university,” says Holmes, the team captain, 50 years later. “There was a feeling that being on a national TV program and doing well would put a pin on the map for us and we would be better known.”

Before the show aired live each week at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time, the clean-cut crew from Claremont would go through a day-long series of rehearsals, with host Allen Ludden and his underlings working hard to whip up each team’s enthusiasm and encourage contestants to answer quickly, Holmes recalls. So they learned to keep their buzzers at hair-trigger, pressed halfway down. Looking back, Wilsnack put the experience this way: “Every week you got to live a little of the good life in return for operating on an almost lethal level of adrenaline for 8 hours.”

After the final dress rehearsal, the teams received a half-hour break before the live show, and to let off steam, Holmes recalls, he would head across the street from the studio to a penny arcade. He was so charged up people would sometimes gather to watch him work the pinball machines with gusto.

Then came the live broadcast. Holmes kept a little Norwegian troll doll, given to him by a friend, next to his buzzer for good luck.

But it was smarts and buzzer hand speed that helped the foursome to succeed week after week. On their first show, Oct. 15, they put away Texas Christian University 200-105. Next week they wiped out University of Washington by the same score. Then Hood College was demolished 325-20. Amherst fell 270-120.

Teams were only allowed to appear a maximum of five times, and so, win or lose, the show broadcast live on Nov. 12, 1961 would be their final appearance. The Sagehens kept their streak, trouncing Washington and Lee University 330 to 110, and taking home a silver bowl trophy and $9,000 for Pomona’s scholarship fund.

“And, by the time it was ended, at least 15,000,000 people knew that Pomona was NOT an agricultural junior college and that it WAS inhabited by some uncommonly bright and mannerly students,” wrote Sweeney, the campus news director, in a special supplement to the Pomona College Bulletin telling “the intimate, behind-the-scenes story” of the team’s triumph. “And four young scholars named Wilsnack, Cartmill, Renaker and Holmes – national celebrities for a few dazzling moments on five Sunday afternoons – had made themselves Pomona immortals.”

They returned home to campus acclaim, with hundreds gathered to watch as Pomona College President E. Wilson Lyon greeted them in a public ceremony. “The crowd cheered loud and long for their conquering scholastic representatives, with a horn-blowing automobile bringing the heroes to the Carnegie steps, and the cheerleaders, band and inherent crowd enthusiasm taking the situation from there,” reported the Claremont Courier in a front-page story under the headline “A New Kind of Hero.” Pomona’s own press releases proudly noted that ours was the first team from beyond the Eastern Seaboard to win all five matches on the show.

Congratulatory letters from alumni poured in, as did one from Gov. Edmund G. Brown. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution congratulating the team.  In an unusual twist, the four scholars were even honored as “team of the year” at the Pomona College Los Angeles Men’s Club’s annual sports banquet.

“It was certainly one of the high points of our lives,’’ says Holmes of the quiz-show experience.  “It was wonderful fun.”

All four students went on to successful careers. Holmes became a judge, serving on the Superior Court in Riverside County. Wilsnack is a behavioral epidemiologist and professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota. Cartmill, former editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, is an anthropology professor at Boston University. Renaker recently retired after a long career as an English professor at San Francisco State.

Still, decades later, Renaker wishes the quiz whizzes could have played on beyond the five-match limit. “We were unbeatable,” he says. “And you can quote me.”

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