Lift your glasses high for ‘Jeopardy’ Jim Britton

Eight years ago, I took a picture of my then-2-year-old daughter Maizee as we stood by the Our Lady of the Rockies statue on the top of the East Ridge.

The late, great Bus Driver Bill McBride drove us up to the statue on a particularly windy day, and that wind had really taken its toll on Maizee’s hair. She looked like a troll doll.

That is my favorite picture of all time. Without question. I can stare at it and laugh for hours.

The photo brings back memories of a long, fun afternoon. It makes me remember how Bill told a tourist on the bus that it will only about 10 minutes to get down the mountain.

“Ten minutes?” she asked in great surprise. “But it took an hour to get up here.”

“Well,” Bill said, “the bus is old, and we usually lose the breaks on the second corner.”

Of course, I have a ton of pictures of all of my kids that all bring back great memories, and I love every one of them.

When it comes to those photos that do not involve my family, there is no question which one is the best.

It was taken by bartender John Cox at Maloney’s Bar in late March of 2001. Matt Vincent and tried to look like deep thinkers. In between us stood Jim Britton, scratching his head and looking off to the distance as if he had met his match with his intellectual superiors.

The best thing about the photo was that Jim was about two months removed from winning an episode of “Jeopardy!”

Yes, the real “Jeopardy!” With host Alex Trebek.

After winning one episode of the legendary game show and taking second the next night, Jim also appeared on the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

He did not get called up to battle with Regis Philbin, however.

I had an in with Jim because he used to speed skate with my brother. We asked him to join us at Maloney’s so we could get the “three smartest guys in town” together for our sports column, “Rat Chat,” in The Montana Standard. (Read it here)

We were shocked when Jim agreed to meet us at Maloney’s, and we hammered him with sports questions and beers for several hours.

We hit him with some questions that not even the greatest “Jeopardy!” champion could ever answer. We hit him with some easy ones, too.

Jim correctly wrote “Who is Gene Siskel?” when Alex said, “The Film Center at the School of Art Institute of Chicago was named after this journalist” in “Final Jeopardy.” But he needed to use Coxie as a lifeline to correctly answer “52” when asked “How many games in a row has the two-time defending Class A state champion Butte Central softball team won?”

“Jeopardy Jim” knew that the name of the horses that “upset” Man O War was named Upset, and, more importantly, he told the world that 2001 was indeed the first year of the 21st Century.

At the time I had some friends who were not exactly Jeopardy champs, if you know what I mean, tell me it was 2000.

All night long, we had a blast.

The next morning, though, I got a call from a frantic Jim.

“Do you ever get writer’s remorse?” he asked.

Sure, I know that feeling now. Back then, however, it was a foreign concept. In Rat Chat, we took a swing at everyone and felt no remorse for those who ended up as collateral damage.

In March of 2001, Vinny and I were at the height of our years-long attempt to boo former Montana Power Co. CEO Bob Gannon and his incompetent cronies out of town for the financial disaster they unleased on our hometown.

We set Jim up with a few softballs, and he took some big-time hilarious swings.

Jim was 10 years older than me, and he was a lot more reluctant to make enemies. At the time, the Dartmouth College graduate was also trying to get a job.

So, Jim came up to the newsroom that afternoon and spent about an hour editing the column to, as he said, “tone it down.” We laughed at most of the lines that scared him, and Jim came up with a clever way to maintain the meaning of the lines while taking out some of the bite.

It turned out to be a great column.

When I look back at the old Rat Chat columns, a lot of them make me cringe. Not the one with Jim. Nearly two decades later, that one holds up, and I cannot help but be damn proud of it.

Earlier this month, Jim passed away. The first sentence of his obituary in the Standard said it all.

“With a final, gentle breath exhaled, James H. Britton left the world on July 14, 2020 as he lived, with grace, courage, and humility.”

The picture Jim took with Vinny and I for that column completely backs up that beautifully-written line.

He had just become the “Jeopardy!” champion, and there he was in Maloney’s goofing off with a couple of knuckleheads. If that is not humility, then I have no idea what is.

“Wheel of Fortune” was much more my speed. I watched “Jeopardy!” from time to time, but I rarely knew the answers. I never knew the “Final Jeopardy” answer.

So, I knew what it was like to be looked down upon by the school chancellor types who do know those answers. I still do.

Jim was nothing like that. Rather, he had a special way of making those around him feel like they were the smart ones.

If there is ever something to brag about, it is winning on “Jeopardy!” Jim acted more like he just won the $12,900 from a lottery scratch ticket.

I had only seen Jim a few times since that night in Maloney’s. When I saw him, we would reminisce about how much fun we had, and he would politely make sure that it was clear that the column was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

That was fine with me because it was one of those things that could not possibly be recreated. We just have to settle for the great memories.

For one night, we brought a “Jeopardy!” champion down to our level, and he truly loved it. But he certainly did not belong there.

He was a gentleman in its highest form, and I am truly honored to say I knew him.

When I heard the news of Jim’s passing, I thought about how much fun we had writing that column. I thought about how a guy with a genius IQ treated a couple of guys who called Maloney’s “home” as if we were academic equals.

Then, I went to find that picture of Jim looking puzzled between Vinny and me as we tried our best to look smart.

I have been looking at the picture again and again, and each time it makes me smile.

I could stare at it and laugh for hours.

— Bill Foley, who has never even won a board game, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. He is writing more frequently during the coronavirus lockdown. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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