When Lisa Murray received the phone call from Sony Pictures Studios in September, she thought it was either spam or a prank.
It had been more than a year since she participated in a regional “Jeopardy!” competition in Detroit, and assumed the steep odds of actually competing on the televised game show meant that would suffice as her “Jeopardy!” dream after years of taking the contestant test.
She might not have even answered it had she been at home and not at her office in Burton Tower where she is the University Musical Society’s associate director of development, foundation and government relations.
It was no prank.
“Hi, this is Glenn Kagan from the ‘Jeopardy!’ staff, and we would like to invite you to be a contestant on our show.”
Stunned silence followed as Murray processed the words.
“My heart started pounding, I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
A month later, on Oct. 2, Murray was in Los Angeles enjoying a “thrilling and terrifying” experience, meeting legendary host Alex Trebek and competing against a fellow Michigander, Jennifer Quail of Dowagiac.
In the audience was her husband, Michael Gatti; 15-year-old daughter, Roberta Gatti; mother, Michiko Murray; and mother-in-law, Sandy Gatti.
“The actual game I played was a complete blur,” Murray said. “Afterward, I couldn’t even remember half of the questions I was asked. I was so pumped with adrenaline and terrified and excited.
“But an unexpected highlight of the day was hanging out with contestants. It’s a great group of fellow nerds.”
Murray finished third with $7,100 — taking home the $1,000 third-place prize — after bouncing between positive and negative dollar figures during the first round and hitting a Daily Double in the category of Place Name Etymology in the Double Jeopardy round.
She even got to say those magical words — “Alex, let’s make this a true Daily Double” — and doubled her $2,200 earnings by responding correctly. All three contestants correctly answered, “What is McDonald?” to the Final Jeopardy clue in Business Namesakes: “It’s the last name of the man who said, ‘Our whole concept was based on speed, lower prices & volume. … My god, the carhops were slow.’”
Quail earned $30,400 for winning her eighth straight game, pushing her total to $228,800. She lost her next game the following week, but in the meantime, she and Murray shared a flight back to Michigan.
“We got to hang out in the airport, and she’s a lovely person,” Murray said of Quail. “If I had to lose to someone, it was nice that it was to a fellow Michigander.”
Quail did confide in Murray that one of her trivia weaknesses was music. Though the category did not come up when Murray appeared on the show, it would have been in her wheelhouse.
Murray grew up in New Jersey in a musical family, singing in choirs throughout her school years and dabbling in acting.
She pursued a psychology degree at Oberlin College, but the real draw to the Ohio school was its strong music program and open-door policy where all students, even non-arts majors, could take classes at the Conservatory of Music.
After graduating, she decided to join friends in Ann Arbor, “and think about what I’m going to do with my life. I stumbled into a job at Zingerman’s Deli and ended up loving it.”
She started attending UMS events and sang in the UMS Choral Union. After several years at Zingerman’s, she joined the UMS staff in December 1997, combining a love of the arts and writing by developing grant proposals to support the many national and international artists and programs presented by UMS.
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Murray said one of the most profound experiences during her more than 20 years at UMS occurred in 2012 when “Einstein on the Beach” was performed for the first time in two decades, launching an international tour for the renowned opera created in 1976 by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass.
But the thrill of traveling to Los Angeles with her family, shaking Trebek’s hand and hitting a Daily Double might even have surpassed seeing the nearly five-hour opera.
On Dec. 13, the night her appearance aired, about 70 family members and friends attended a watch party at the Hyatt Place to cheer Murray on.
“For most of us, there aren’t many opportunities in life for our personal ‘cheering squads’ to assemble unless there’s a serious illness or funeral, but this was a happy occasion where I got to see — and hear — my squad, literally cheering me on,” Murray said. “It was very touching and kind of unexpected. I hadn’t imagined how wonderful that would be.”