If you were a high school student in Canada during the 60s, 70s and 80s, and more of a straight-A geek than a jock, then your only extra-curricular activity choice to show off all the information and knowledge you have absorbed (both academic and non-academic) was not the track team, but “Reach for the Top”.
During its near 25-year run on CBC Television, “Reach for the Top” successfully ran on its continuing mission as an exceptional showcase for Canadian high school students to exhibit their knowledge and power of quick recall on a variety of factual-based subjects, whether they learned it in or outside the classroom.
Between 1961 and 1985, students who participated in “Reach”, in which they represented their respective high schools in teams of four, shared the same goal: answer as many questions correctly through straight questions, team questions, assigned questions and “short snappers” within a half-hour of airtime and amass the most amount of points than your opponents. Win the required amount of games and your team earned the right to compete in the provincial championships in the spring, and then the national playoffs during the summer in a chosen host city somewhere in Canada, where the ultimate goal was to win national “Reach for the Top” supremacy (and the heavy marble championship trophy that went with it).
Personally speaking, I know what it was like to be part of the “Reach for the Top” experience when I was a student at Sir Winston Churchill High School in Ville St. Laurent. I participated as one-fourth of my school’s “Reach” team during the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons. During the latter season, we won the Quebec championship, and went on to compete in the nationals, which took place that summer in Ottawa, where we finished in second place. When we won the provincial title that spring, we were told by our school’s principal at the time that our victory instilled a great deal of pride for the school that was felt by the faculty and the student body (it was the school’s first “Reach” title since 1968, and the third in the school’s history).
But what happened when a school’s “Reach” team won the national title? How far were the repercussions felt by that victory not only in their immediate community in particular, but throughout their province in general?
Case in point, the team from Gonzaga High School, an all-boys private Catholic school based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. During the 1974 Reach for the Top national playoffs, which were held on their home turf of St. John’s, Gonzaga – who were provincial champions for three years in a row yet never won the national title – were seen as underdogs when they made it to the final game against the heavily favored team from Archbishop O’Leary High School in Edmonton, Alberta. When the buzzer sounded 30 minutes later to end the game, Gonzaga narrowly defeated Archbishop O’Leary by a score of 300 to 275, thereby giving Newfoundland its first-ever “Reach” national championship, and setting off a reaction across the province that was almost on the same scale as Paul Henderson’s winning goal during the Canada-Russia Summit Series two years before.
How could this single victory on a nationally-telecasted high school quiz show have so much significance for this young province? Joan Sullivan, a Newfoundland writer and editor, recaptures the spirit and meaning behind Gonzaga’s 1974 Reach for the Top national championship win in her fascinating book Game.
The book is an oral history that tells the story behind this single championship game, as Sullivan interviews most of the players from both teams (including veteran CBC broadcaster Tom Harrington, who represented the Gonzaga team), as they give their perspective on their respective schools and how important a role “Reach for the Top” served there, not to mention the intensity that was involved when it came to how they practiced and prepared for each game, as well as the strategies they employed (especially when it came to which categories would be divided up as specialties amongst each team member).
As well, thanks to a very diligent effort in transcribing the championship game word-for-word from a video recording that was found on YouTube, Sullivan recreates the game down to every question that was asked by Reach for the Top’s eminent national quizmaster, the late great Bill Guest, and answered by both teams (even down to the game winning question of what is the most common word in written English, which was correctly answered by Peter Chafe of Gonzaga as “the”). And with behind the scenes comments interjected throughout the transcription, this section of the book captures the excitement of the championship game as if it was an ESPN “30 on 30” documentary.
However, Sullivan gives a much broader perspective to why this final game had so much significance. Basically, it fell into the “right place at the right time” category. In 1974, Newfoundland and Labrador were commemorating their 25th anniversary of being admitted into Confederation with a series of celebrations and special events that took place throughout the year. Basically, 1974 was a good year to be a Newfoundlander. Thanks to the year-long celebrations, Newfoundland life and culture started to gain exposure across the country, mainly as a result of Conservative Premier Frank Moores’ mandate (which helped to break the iron grip of founding Premier Joey Smallwood’s administration, which ran from 1949 until he was defeated by Moores in 1971), and led to the period known as the “Newfoundland Renaissance”, which included TV shows such as “All Around the Circle” and “Ryan’s Fancy”, the writings of Percy Janes and Kevin Major, movies such as “The Rowdyman” and a new brand of Canadian comedy thanks to the legendary troupe CODCO. And with interviews from well-known Newfoundland figures as politicians John Crosbie, Edward Roberts and Bill Rowe, as well as cultural bureaucrat John Perlin and former Gonzaga teacher Ken Coffey, the reader gets a much more clearer, fleshed out portrait of a special year when Newfoundland came into its own as a contributor to the Canadian mosaic, and helped set the stage to make Gonzaga’s Reach for the Top victory at the 1974 Nationals as one of the significant events of that “Newfoundland Renaissance”.
And as a result of that milestone win, the Gonzaga Reach for the Top team quickly became the toast of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1974. They became front page news across the province; Premier Moores and the mayor of St. John’s hosted luncheons in their honour; they appeared as guests on the then-popular CBC TV talk show “Luncheon Date with Elwood Glover” (in which the other guest during that telecast was actor Jon Voight); and as national champions, they were offered the choice of trips to either London, Paris, or Stony Mountain, Alberta (they ended up choosing the latter trip).
Game is the very first book published that singularly focusses on how “Reach for the Top” was a truly Canadian social and cultural phenomenon to so many teenagers of high school age, especially during its CBC heyday. And “Reach” is still played in over 400 high schools across the country (thanks to its “Schoolreach” subscription service), with the National Finals still taking place every May. However, thanks to Joan Sullivan and her immensely enjoyable book, we discover how the achievement of the 1974 Gonzaga High School team became a microcosm to how truly significant this question-and-answer high school quiz show became to generations of young Canadians.
How significant? As Gonzaga team member Sethu Reddy simply states in the book: “Reach for the Top was a very popular show … But I’m still puzzled, even mystified, when I go back to Newfoundland – people still remember.”