An Un-Trivial Pursuit

University gained the national spotlight as first interracial team in televised trivia competition
black and white photo of the trivia team of Elbert Hayes, captain, Phil Marcus, Bill Williams, Alvin Easter

A package arrived at the UMKC Alumni Association office last year. Inside was a single sheet of paper with a contact name and phone number. It also included a medal, tucked inside bubble wrap.

The medal, with “GE College Bowl” embossed on one side and “Alvin F. Easter University of Kansas City” engraved on the other, is a small reminder of the big impact four students had on the university in 1963.

Right around the time the University of Kansas City (UKC) announced its plans to merge with the University of Missouri System to become the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the school was chosen to compete on the popular television show “GE College Bowl.” The program, sponsored by General Electric, pitted two colleges, each with a team of four, against each other in a trivia showdown.

The young men chosen to represent UKC — Team Captain Elbert Hayes (B.S. ’63), Phil Marcus (B.A. ’63), Bill Williams (B.A. ’65) and Alvin Easter (B.A. ’67) — began an accelerated study program to prepare for the trivia show.

Easter, a freshman who skipped a grade in high school and was just 17 at the time, specialized in history and cinema. Hayes was the music and science enthusiast. Marcus focused on sports and literature, while Williams was the expert on art, geography and nursery rhymes.

Their skillsets were certainly impressive, but this team was different from every other in one important way: Hayes was black, making him the first African-American to compete on the program and UKC the first interracial team.

Their appearance on “GE College Bowl” drew criticism from some and even resulted in death threats for the team. But on a Sunday afternoon the UKC team took the stage, undeterred.

Image from the Kansas City Times. Left to right: Elbert L. Hayes, science; Alvin Easter, history; Phil Marcus, literature, and Bill Williams, fine arts.
Accompanying photo caption from the Kansas City Times on Feb. 18, 1962 [sic]: A team of four University of Kansas City students will compete Sunday for scholastic honors on the national television program, “College Bowl.” Left to right, Elbert L. Hayes, science; Alvin Easter, history; Phil Marcus, literature, and Bill Williams, fine arts. They will match erudition with the university’s alternate team at a warm-up session at 8:30 o’clock Wednesday night in room 214 of the Law building, Fifty-second street and Rockhill road. It will be open to the public. Alternate team members are Dan Creasy, Mike Edwards, Grover Walker and Steve Wheelock. Dr. Walter Murrish, forensic director at the university, is the team’s coach and will accompany them when it faces a group from Norwich university, Northville, Vt., in New York.

UKC’s episode of “GE College Bowl” was taped live on Feb. 24, 1963. UKC was competing against Norwich University from Northville, Vermont. Easter, who sent his medal to the UMKC Alumni Association for its archives, says he still recalls a few of the questions posed during the show: naming a photo of the crab nebula, the date of the Battle of the Alamo and identifying a line from “Death of a Salesman.”

Ultimately, the team bested Norwich and won $1,500 for the UKC Scholarship Fund. Back in Kansas City, the university was abuzz with excitement. It was the first time UKC had received national media attention, and the win united campus. Hundreds of students watched the contest to support their hometown team, and many showed up at the airport to give the team a hero’s welcome.

Although they didn’t claim victory during their next matchup against Wake Forest on Sunday, March 3, the team still received an additional $500 for the UKC Scholarship Fund and a place in university history.

This article first appeared in the 2018 issue of Perspectives, the UMKC alumni magazine.

close-up of the GE College Bowl medal on top of newspaper clippings of the team's success


Published: Nov 1, 2018

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