Local Catholic student wins big on Jeopardy!

By Michele Chan Santos


Jonathan Shoemaker, 12, a seventh grader at Holy Family Catholic School in North Austin, took a big risk when he decided to stake $2,000 on a Bible question on the popular TV show Jeopardy!.

Host Alex Trebek said, "When this strong man was born, God said, ‘No razor shall come upon his head.’"

Jonathan correctly answered, "Who was Samson?"

In answering the Daily Double question on the Kids’ Week episode, Jonathan increased his winnings to $4,000.

"My strategy was, if the category was Math or Religion, I’m betting everything," he said.

He held on through Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy, winning the match and $15,000. He put most of the money in his college fund, though he did purchase a laptop. During Kids’ Week the contestants appeared on one episode each. Unlike when adults compete, the winners did not go on to the next day’s show.

The best part of being on Jeopardy! was "meeting all the other kids and seeing what the studio was like," Jonathan said. "From the outside it’s just a gray box, but inside you can see the set, it looked cool." Host Trebek, who is 73 years old, was "really nice," he said, adding, "It’s amazing he’s still going."

Jonathan is a bright, polite teenager with many interests. He plays soccer, basketball, tennis and baseball, and participates in math tournaments through a program called Extreme Math.

Jonathan’s father, David, is his Extreme Math coach. David has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the CEO of Alereon, a wireless chip company. Jonathan’s mother, Judy, is a graduate of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Jonathan has two sisters – Emily, a freshman at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School, and Jessica, a fourth grader at Holy Family Catholic School.

Jonathan credits his Bible knowledge to Sister Jude Andrew, his religion teacher at Holy Family last year, and to Sister Maria Fatima, his current religion teacher. Both religious sisters are from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

"Jonathan is a wonderful student. I’m impressed with his humility," Sister Fatima said. Sister Jude Andrew was very excited when Jonathan’s episode went on the air, she said.

The episode aired on July 29, although it was taped last February.

Just earning a spot on Jeopardy! Kids’ Week was quite a feat. Thousands of children took a 30-question timed test online, which was offered on only one day. Of those students, 250 were chosen for the next round, and had to travel to New Orleans, Cincinnati, New York or Los Angeles. In New Orleans, Jonathan took another 30-question test, did an interview and participated in a mock Jeopardy! game.

Finally, 15 students were picked to be on the show. Jeopardy! paid for the students’ airfare and hotel; the participants also received a free day at Universal Studios.

After the Kids’ Week competitions aired, there was controversy over a different episode where Thomas Hurley, an 8th-grader from Connecticut, misspelled Emancipation Proclamation (he spelled it "emanciptation"). The answer was deemed incorrect by the show’s judges, and he told the media he felt cheated. Trebek was publicly criticized for appearing insensitive.

Asked about the controversy, Jonathan said it was made clear to all the young contestants that misspellings would only be counted correct if the number of syllables and phonetic pronunciation agreed with the correct answer. Because the extra "t" made Hurley’s misspelling a different-sounding word, Jonathan said he thought the judges made the right decision.

Hurley eventually lost to the top competitor at Kids’ Week, Skyler Hornbeck, who won a record-setting $66,000, which was the third-highest one-day total in the history of the show.

Jonathan’s parents were longtime believers in the value of a Catholic education, even before their son won a spot on the TV quiz show.

"The religious education and environment at Holy Family is a huge plus," Judy said. "The size of the school allows us to really participate in everything with our kids."

Asked if he’s planning on making a return appearance on Jeopardy!, Jonathan shook his head no.

"They told us we couldn’t be on the show again unless 30 years had passed or Alex Trebek retires," Jonathan said.

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