Ilena Di Toro won on her first night on Jeopardy!, then in her second appearance helped set up a reunion with a former teacher who played a role in her victory.
Di Toro, a Bustleton resident who works for Debbie Goetz Media Connections, used the interview portion of the quiz show to tell host Ken Jennings that her history teacher at Archbishop Ryan was a former champion.
“I thought it would be nice, since Jeopardy! has been on for so long, to say my history teacher was on with Alex Trebek,” Di Toro said of her mention of Mary Campbell.
Di Toro, a 1988 Ryan graduate, accomplished her main goal when she won $9,500 and the Jeopardy! championship on the June 30 show, hosted by Mayim Bialik.
“She’s great,” said Di Toro, adding that she’s impressed that Bialik has a Ph. D. in neuroscience.
Di Toro entered Final Jeopardy with $5,400, and the category was national anthems. The answer was, “The name of this country’s national anthem translates as ‘His Majesty’s Reign’ & its lyrics come from a 1,000-year-old poem.”
Di Toro wagered $4,100 and her question was, “What is Japan?” She was pleasantly surprised when Bialik told her she was correct.
“It was a Hail Mary,” she acknowledged. “I was very surprised.”
The other challenger said France, while the leader and returning champion said Norway, leading Bialik to declare, “Ilena Di Toro, you are our new Jeopardy! champion.”
Di Toro is now not just a “living room champ.”
“I just focused on each question as they came. I shut everything else out,” Di Toro said of her winning strategy. “I had my 15 minutes of fame. It was fun to be on Jeopardy!. I wish I would have won more games, but I still won. It was really great.”
Di Toro finished with $1,400 in her second game, with one of the challengers wrapping up the championship before Final Jeopardy. She said Jennings, who won 74 consecutive games on Jeopardy!, was a great host.
It was on that July 3 show that Di Toro spoke of Campbell.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard my name,” said Campbell, who is retired and living in Roxborough.
Ed Lawrence, Di Toro’s former religion teacher, watched both episodes and called Campbell the day after their former student’s second appearance. All three agreed a reunion would be great after all these years, and it took place last Friday at Ryan.
Campbell won her first appearance back in 1994. She was ahead going into Final Jeopardy and went on to win with a question on one of her favorites, the late marine biologist, Rachel Carson. She went on to lose her second game.
“It was a great experience,” said Campbell, describing Trebek as “absolutely charming.”
Di Toro was a junior during the 1986-87 academic year when she took Campbell’s world history class, which included a focus on Japan and might have played a role in her “Hail Mary” guess to become a Jeopardy! champ.
Friday’s reunion was a delight for Di Toro, Campbell and Lawrence, all big fans of the quiz show.
“I watched the old Art Fleming shows that were on during the day,” said Campbell, whose daughter, Mary, appeared on the show in 1999.
Lawrence and fellow teacher Jack McCabe served as two of Campbell’s coaches prior to her appearance, and Lawrence recalls attending her epic watch party.
Unlike Jennings, who later appeared on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Celebrity Wheel of Fortune and other game shows, Di Toro won’t be on your TV screens in the near future.
“Jeopardy! is the only game show I want to be on,” she said.
Lawrence, who is retired, told Di Toro and Campbell they aren’t the only Jeopardy! champions with Ryan ties.
Back in 2014, Ryan Elkins – then a seventh-grader at St. Charles Borromeo in Bensalem – won $17,100 during Kids Week. Elkins is a 2020 Ryan grad who is now a student at Notre Dame.
“How many Philadelphia-area schools can boast two Jeopardy! champs, let alone three,” Lawrence said.
“It’s amazing,” Campbell added. ••