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Jean Trebek says 'Jeopardy!' gave husband Alex Trebek 'sense of purpose' amid cancer battle

The widow of the late "Jeopardy!" host also shared how much a specific moment on a 2019 episode meant to him.
/ Source: TODAY

Whether it was through his many philanthropic efforts or his strength in the face of pancreatic cancer, Alex Trebek always aimed to empower others to meet the challenges in their lives.

Trebek's widow, Jean Trebek, spoke about that special quality of the late "Jeopardy!" host with TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie as part of the NBC special "Inspiring America: The 2021 Inspiration List" on Saturday.

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Trebek was very open about his cancer diagnosis and the struggles he faced before his death at 80 years old in November.

"I think that is one of Alex's gifts was that he could be very resolute and know that the truth will not hurt you, and he wanted to empower people to move through whatever challenge they had in life with a sense of inner strength, inner dignity and love," Jean Trebek said.

She looks to continue her husband's legacy of helping others during challenging times by continuing the charitable work that was a hallmark of their 30-year marriage.

She recently dedicated a new homeless shelter in Los Angeles that was partly funded by the Trebeks through the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission.

"He was deeply grateful to be part of the solution," she said. "We both saw the rise of homelessness. Now we have this beautiful bridge house that's being built right now to help people."

The couple were involved in many causes over the years, including funding scholarships at Fordham University in New York City, supporting the United Service Organizations, donating public park space in the Hollywood Hills and funding global projects through World Vision.

"He loved representing the underdeveloped countries, communities," Trebek said. "He really wanted to be a spokesman for the underdog."

They also made sure to pass that spirit of giving along to their three children, which included a trip to a village in Zambia to see a community center and school they helped fund.

"We decided to take the children to Africa just to show, 'Look, this is where help is needed,''' Trebek said. "And Alex and I were big fans of that, actually demonstrating that in our family."

She also remembered a moment in Ethiopia decades ago when a young woman was so desperate she offered Alex her baby, which had a profound effect on him.

"I think that moment, meeting that woman, he was like, 'Wow,' and then you're left (with), 'What more can I do?'" Trebek said.

Much of the love he put out into the world through his charitable efforts and his 36 years as the host of "Jeopardy!" was returned to him near the end of his life as fans, peers, contestants and colleagues let him know how much he meant to them.

Contestant Dhruv Gaur nearly brought him to tears in 2019 when he wrote “We love you, Alex,” along with a heart drawing during Final Jeopardy.

"And when that contestant wrote that, you could see him, like, 'Oh, don't make me cry here, but I love it,''' Trebek said. "I think that meant the world to him."

The couple's daughter, Emily Trebek, thinks he would've been overwhelmed to know how much he meant to so many people.

"I think he would've been shocked, honestly," she told Savannah. "I think he knew he was loved and revered, but I don't think to this level. I think that the support and the love that's been shown since he passed has really been on another level. And I think he would've really appreciated it. I think it would mean a lot to him."

Trebek continued to host the show until the final two weeks before his death.

"Doing 'Jeopardy!' really gave him a sense of purpose, a reason to wake up in the morning," his widow said. "And I would say we all need that. We all need a purpose.

"I think that I knew his life on Earth here would wrap up quickly when he could no longer do the show," she continued. "But he wanted to finish strong, and he did. And he lived life on his own terms."

Trebek's dignity and courage during his cancer treatment also inspired another "Jeopardy!" champion, Jason Idalski, in his own cancer journey. On the day Trebek died, Idalski began to feel sick and was soon diagnosed with acute leukemia.

"Alex definitely inspired me by the way he dealt with his cancer," Idalski told Savannah a few weeks ago. "There were so many times that he must have been so sick, but he never let on, never missed a step."

Idalski said his leukemia is now in remission.

Jean Trebek is heartened by stories like that as she tries to celebrate his memory while mourning the loss of the love of her life.

"I think right now, talking with you, I'm good," she said. "You know? I'm good. I absolutely have moments of waves of grief that just come over me. I miss him a lot."