"Jeopardy!" champion Burt Thakur, who went viral last week after he tearfully told Alex Trebek about the impact he had on his life, recalled the beloved game show host's kindness and wit when they finally met.
"First of all, to walk up on that stage like I saw as a little kid. He comes out and is an absolute gentleman and professional. He was so witty and funny," Thakur, 37, told TODAY. "Alex Trebek is a significant reason why I am the way I am."
Thakur's sentiments come after news broke that Trebek died Sunday morning at the age of 80.
During a post-show chat on Thursday night's episode of "Jeopardy!," which was taped in August, Trebek asked Thakur if there was anyone special cheering him on at home.
"You know, here's a true story, man. I grew up, I learned English because of you," Thakur told Trebek. "And so, my grandfather, who raised me — I'm gonna get tears right now — I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day so it's a pretty special moment for me, man."
Video of the moment was shared on the official "Jeopardy!" Twitter account, with a caption that read, "Alex's impact is immeasurable. Thank you for sharing, Burt!"
"My grandfather would always look at Alex and say, 'That's a good man and one day you're going to meet him and shake his hand,'" Thakur told TODAY.
Trebek was visibly touched by Thakur's story, but also had a hilarious one-liner ready for him after the show. "Without skipping a beat he said, 'I too sat on my grandfather's leg, but he taught me swear words!" Thakur recalled, laughing.
Thakur came out as the evening's champion with a $20,400 win. After the show, he said he heard from many fellow immigrants who reached out to share how his story of watching "Jeopardy!" also resonated with them.
"I realized substantively the show was something that provided a map of the cultural zeitgeist of western civilization," he said.
After being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2019, Trebek continued to tape episodes until Oct. 29, 2020. During Thakur's time on the show, he said there were moments when it was clear Trebek's illness was showing.
"As opposed to bowing his head and wincing, he kept on keeping on. It was this mentality that this is something bigger than myself. This is something that matters," Thakur said. "To not lose his cool and have a defeated attitude, cloaked with a mantle of humility... It's something we can all learn from."
While fans mourned the death of one of the most universally loved people on television, Thakur said he hopes the world can pay tribute to Trebek by showing more kindness. "My wish is for people to honor him by letting go of hate in their heart today," he said. "If they have someone who matters to them, let them know."
Other "Jeopardy!" contestants also shared their memories of being on the show with Trebek.
"I took the Jeopardy! test when I did because I wanted to get on while it was still hosted by Alex Trebek, one of my all-time heroes. He did not disappoint," Ted Berg wrote.
Raya Elias-Pushett shared a photo of herself and Trebek after she lost.
"Now that he can't get in trouble: This picture was taken after I lost the Final, finishing the best two days of my life," she wrote. "My mom knew that the posed contestant photos would take too long. For me, Alex Trebek made being loudly smart something to be proud of."
"What is 2020 officially sucks," wrote @RIckWritesNow. "I was lucky enough to be a contestant on Jeopardy! about 10 years ago. Alex Trebek was gracious, and was amazing to watch. That show will never be the same."
Derek Lowe, who was a contestant on the show in the 1990s called Trebek "a real pro, and it was a pleasure to watch him work."
Dave Braxton was lucky enough to meet him twice. "Had a chance to meet Alex twice: once as a Teen Tournament applicant, once as a Jeopardy! contestant. Two of the highlights of my life. He was a class act, a beautiful person, and will be forever etched into broadcast history," he wrote. "All my best to his family."
For Andy Hermann, being on "Jeopardy!" was a life highlight.
"It seems silly to say that one of my proudest accomplishments was winning a game show. But "Jeopardy!" wasn't just any game show, and Alex Trebek wasn't just any host," he wrote. "So happy I got to meet one of my childhood heroes and can't quite believe he's gone. RIP."
James Holzhauer, who competed in the "Greatest of All Time" tournament that aired in January, said he was so glad he got to return to the show after Trebek was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
"It was one of the great privileges of my life to spend time with this courageous man while he fought the battle of his life," he wrote. "You will never be replaced in our hearts, Alex."
Brad Rutter, who also competed in the "Greatest of All Time" tournament, sent a tweet thanking Trebek for everything he gave to the world.
"Just gutted. There will never be another," he wrote. "RIP, Alex, and thank you so much for everything."
Ken Jennings, who holds the record for 74 straight wins on the show and won the battle against Holzhauer and Rutter in January, shared a fun photo of himself and Trebek taking a selfie.
"Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did. He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him," Jennings wrote.
In a subsequent tweet, he added, "Thinking today about his family and his 'Jeopardy!' family — which, in a way, included millions of us."