PRO and Jeopardy! Contestant Phil Tompkins Is One Smart Cookie

Game show host Alex Trebek was fascinated by the occupation of the restroom technician for Service Sanitation in greater Chicago

PRO and Jeopardy! Contestant Phil Tompkins Is One Smart Cookie

Phil Tompkins, restroom technician, with host Alex Trebek on the set of Jeopardy! (Photo courtesy of Jeopardy!)

Question: The first portable restroom operator to appear on Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek?

Answer: Who is Phil Tompkins?

“I can’t verify it’s 100 percent true, but (Trebek) did say that,” says Tompkins, 34, a route driver for Service Sanitation in Gary, Indiana, shortly after he was a contestant on the popular quiz show. In fact, Tompkins believes his profession had something to do with sharing the stage with Trebek in the first place.

“It’s rare to see any blue-collar worker on the show. It’s almost always teachers and librarians,” an astute Tompkins says about his lifelong favorite television show. 

“When I got to the audition, they only wanted to ask me about my job. And when (Trebek) was actually talking to me on the show, three different times he mentioned my job and how unusual it was.”

While taping Jeopardy! toward the end of 2018, Trebek strode over to Tompkins while the three players were being introduced.

“He read my job title, looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You’re the first person with that job who’s ever been on this show.’ And I said I had a feeling that might be the case,” he recalls. Then Trebek asked him to recount some of the interesting places he’s been to because of his job, and Tompkins mentioned back stage at the Lollapalooza music festival and the Chicago Marathon.

“I had a whole list of things to say about work and I was going to rattle them off, but I froze up. … There was an awkward pause and he walked over to the next contestant,” Tompkins says. He was going to mention the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field; the home of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field; championship parades for the Cubs and the Chicago Blackhawks; skyscraper construction sites … and many more fascinating locations worked by the drivers of the large restroom company serving metro Chicago.

Maybe Tompkins was saving all the talking for his run toward the Final Jeopardy question … but more on that later.

JEOPARDY! FANATICS

How did a scholarly portable restroom technician wind up in front of the bright lights and imposing board of questions on the most challenging game show on television? It was an appearance that was a lifetime in the making.

Tompkins grew up watching Jeopardy! every day with his father, Brad Tompkins, an English professor who “probably owns 10,000 books, is the most well-read person I know and is extremely knowledgeable. I’m smart enough to get on the show, but his knowledge puts me to shame,” the younger Tompkins says.

Tompkins’ own educational background probably helped, too. Before becoming a portable restroom operator, Tompkins graduated in 2010 from Hyles-Anderson College in Crown Point, Indiana, with a pastoral theology degree. He was trained to become a Baptist minister, but preferred to use his CDL rather than his bachelor’s degree to kick-start a career.

He has been employed by Service Sanitation for six years, running a service route covering northern Indiana. In the summer, he services 200 to 250 units a week. The route includes a power plant, parks, schools and residential construction sites.

“I think my favorite part of the job, though, is helping everyday people with their biggest occasions. Weddings, open houses, reunions, parties — seeing how happy they are setting up for these things and getting to play a small part is fun,” he says.

Both father and son have been trying to get on Jeopardy! for years. How does that work? Once a year the game show conducts online testing to qualify contestants. During three call-in sessions, participants are given 15 seconds each to answer 50 random questions. A field of 80,000 to 100,000 people is narrowed to a few thousand who are called back for further testing and interviewing at cities across the country. Tompkins auditioned in Detroit and was among about 400 people chosen to be on the show. He was invited to tape a show last fall, and like all contestants, he had to pay his own way to Los Angeles, accompanied by his wife, Rosie.

“I was thankful to have (Rosie) there. She was a big support, and the fact that she was willing to leave her babies (Niko, 7, and Emmy, 5) for a few nights was huge,” Tompkins says.

THE GAME

Tompkins arrived on a Wednesday when a week’s worth of shows are taped, about one an hour. He was asked to bring several changes of clothes in the event he kept winning and had to appear in successive programs. A group of 11 contestants and the returning champion spend the day together, appearing in and watching shows in the studio audience. For each episode, two new contestant names are drawn from a bowl to take on the returning champion.

“I didn’t get all that nervous taping the show. You spend a few hours doing paperwork and procedures. There’s a few hours with all the contestants and they take your pictures and there are rehearsal games,” Tompkins says. “By the time they start recording, you’re real comfortable on the stage and playing the game.”

In the game, Tompkins started out slow. He says learning to time the buzzer to be able to answer the question is about as hard as knowing the answers. The game is split into two boards of Jeopardy! questions covering several categories each. Tompkins got hot during the Double Jeopardy portion of the game, amassing $14,000 in winnings, and held a narrow lead over the other players going into the Final Jeopardy.

In Final Jeopardy, contestants are given the topic of the question (Catholicism in this case) and asked to make a wager. He risked more than the returning champion and all three players got answered the question wrong. Consequently, Tompkins finished in second place and walked away with $2,000.

LOST, BUT WON

Tompkins says the response to his appearance on Jeopardy! has been gratifying. A local Facebook page talked about it and garnered 1,000 likes and another 200 shares and comments came to him. His phone rang off the hook. Friends at his First Baptist Church were thrilled.

Tompkins says his boss at Service Sanitation, Marc Keen, and dispatch manager, Nate Staley, helped him by working around the audition and show taping. And the company played the show on all the office TVs when it aired and played a loop of his appearance in the drivers’ rooms so they could see it.

“Many, many people have been incredibly excited and supportive about my appearance on the show,” he says.

“It was a fantastic opportunity and loads of fun,” Tompkins says. “I’ve been watching the show daily since I was a kid, and Dad is a big fan and was trying to get on the show for decades. He was extremely proud of me and maybe a little more jealous.” 



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