In a television galaxy far, far away, long before “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” became the standard by which the chattering classes came to judge the sizable portion of America between New York and Los Angeles, NBC broadcast something called “The G.E. College Bowl” on Sunday afternoons.
For 30 minutes, two teams of four bright college students, each team representing a different institution, waged intellectual war, answering questions from the moderator, buzzing in for their chance to be recognized in true game show contestant fashion.
One of those programs, divided into three segments, is getting thousands of hits on YouTube today. It’s the March 6, 1966, contest that pitted Agnes Scott College, a small all-female liberal arts school from Decatur, Ga., against the defending champion, Princeton University – four women against four men.
Two of the Princetonians were National Merit Scholarship finalists and one was an honorary National Merit Scholar. Princeton had trounced another women’s school, Mount Holyoke College, the week before and did not take Agnes Scott seriously. In fact, Princeton did not even admit women students at that time.
After a series of 20-, 25- and 30-point tossup questions covering history, art, literature and other subjects with uncontested bonus questions going to the tossup winners, the astonishment in moderator Robert Earle’s voice was evident when he cued the announcer to state the first-half score: Agnes Scott, 100;
In fact, Earle was so shocked that he asked the announcer to repeat it.
In the second half, Princeton staged an aggressive comeback, capturing and increasing its lead until, with a minute, 45 seconds to go and Agnes Scott down by 20, Betty Butler of Nashville correctly answered that Thoreau’s doctrine was “civil
At the 45-second mark, Butler came through again by answering that Albert Einstein was the formulator of the law of conservation of mass and energy. Then, with the second hand sweeping time away on the old General Electric clock on the wall, came the bonus question about literary heroes: “Bucephalus and Roan Barbery were steeds. What were Balmung and Durandal?” Karen Gearreald blurted out, “Swords!” a mere second before the final whistle blew. Earle, as usual, promised the winner would be announced after the next commercial break, but the way the Agnes Scott women were jumping around in their seats told the story. The final score: Agnes Scott, 220; Princeton, 215.
If this were just the story of a little-known Southern school beating an internationally lauded Ivy League school, it would be exciting. If it were just a triumphant battle-of-the-sexes story in an era before the women’s movement really began to gain currency, it would be exciting. But here’s the real kicker.
Karen Gearreald, who had narrated the halftime film introducing her school to the nation and whose winning answer had provided the greatest upset in College Bowl history, is blind.
She could not see the clock. Therefore, she had no idea how much or how little time remained in the
Gearreald, whose parents had decided to mainstream her at a time when it was rarely done with blind students, went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard University and a law degree from Duke University, before embarking on a 20-year career as a civil service attorney in the U.S. Navy.
Butler is an expert on health policy in emerging nations.
As for their teammates, Malinda Snow teaches English at Georgia State University in Atlanta. And Katherine Bell, now deceased, taught botany at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
If you like rummaging around YouTube and you’d like to see something a little more meaningful than amateur acrobats doing backflips into their jeans, check out the three-part College Bowl episode.
Somehow, Billy Bush agonizing his way through “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” just doesn’t measure up.