40 years ago, Flathead ruled battle of brains

Flathead foursome defeated all challengers in 1971

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This photo from the 1971 school yearbook shows the Flathead High School team competing in the championship round of the “High School Bowl.” From left in the front row are Mark Huber, Chris Jans, Marise Johnson and Chuck Cummings. The Flathead foursome defeated Moses Lake for the championship. 

Time was running out.

It had been a hard-fought match. Flathead High School was behind, trailing the team from Moses Lake, Wash. Seconds ticked away on the clock on the studio wall. Whoever won the toss-up question would have the chance to answer another question.

It was a tense conclusion to Flathead’s inaugural season in “High School Bowl,” a television show based on the popular “College Bowl” program that aired through the 1960s. Flathead had easily defeated five other teams to land in the championship game, which pitted the quartet from Kalispell against the defending champions from Moses Lake.

The teams squared off in Spokane’s KHQ TV studio May 30, 1971.

Mark Huber still remembers the game’s final moments.

“If Moses Lake got the toss-up and got it right away, they were going to score. We wouldn’t have been able to catch them,” he said. “Everybody had their fingers on the buzzer.”

The emcee started to read the question: “In July 1863, the armies of Grant and Lee —”

Huber hit his buzzer.

“The battle of Gettysburg,” he answered.

He and his teammates waited for a tense half-second. “I figured, that’s got to be the question,” Huber said.

It was.

Flathead won the toss-up, correctly answered the next question and won the match 260 points to 255 points, becoming the school’s first (and only) “High School Bowl” champions.

Huber and teammates Chuck Cummings, Chris Jans and Marise Johnson reminisced about their quiz bowl victories this month for the Inter Lake.

The team members and their classmates from Flathead’s class of ’71 celebrate their 40-year reunion this weekend.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, nearly all of Kalispell’s television programming came out of Spokane, Huber recalled. Local residents were familiar with the Spokane NBC affiliate’s “High School Bowl” program, which aired Sunday nights and featured teams from high schools from eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

Flathead had long tried to get on the program. Finally, in spring 1970, Flathead’s National Honor Society chapter received a letter from the station inviting the school to send a team the following fall.

Four seniors and an alternate, Julie Ruff, were chosen to represent Flathead.

“I don’t know why the teachers picked me,” said Johnson, who described the quiz bowl team as “our version of gifted and talented.”

It was nice to have an arena to showcase intellectual talents, she said. Athletics, particularly that year’s state champion football team, often shone at Flathead.

“We were never going to be the football team,” Johnson said. “It was quite nice to have the recognition for that.”

Cummings said he suspected he was chosen for the team for comic relief.

“I was the color commentator,” he said — although he did acknowledge expertise in one area.

“I was the music guy. I played in a rock band,” he said. “They looked at me when we had music questions, which was like once in the whole thing.”

Everyone on the team had strengths in certain areas, Huber said.

“Chuck and Chris were just geniuses in math and science,” he said. “Literature, history and geography were probably areas where Marise and I jumped in.”

Johnson agreed, calling herself and Huber “humanists” and Cummings and Jans the scientists of the team. “We were a good balance in the end,” she said.

The team’s first test came Oct. 4, 1970, against Royal High School from Royal City, Wash.

It was a close match against an experienced team, Huber recalled, but in the end, Flathead edged Royal City. The Kalispell team was celebrating its first victory when the other school’s adviser whispered something to the show’s moderator.

“The emcee explained we had not answered a question absolutely correctly, so we needed to do the whole thing over again,” Huber said.

The teams squared off again in a new game with new questions.

Flathead was “a little bit perturbed,” Huber said, and their second victory against Royal City was not nearly as close as the first. The official score was 270-90.

“That was how we started on the path to kicking all the schools’ butts,” Huber said. “It was the first year Flathead High School had ever been invited. We had an obligation: If we finally got invited, we better win the darn thing. And we did.”

Flathead defeated a team from Sandpoint, Idaho, 235-150 the following week. The second victory earned the team the chance to compete in the spring elimination tournament.

Four more matches followed in spring 1971.

Flathead defeated Pullman, Wash., 195-130; Mater Clarien 340-195; and Spokane prep school St. George 365-125 before winning its closest game ever in the championship round against Moses Lake.

For most of the trips, the team had driven to Spokane with an adviser and stayed in hotels the night before the tapings. Donald Neu, the biology teacher and Honor Society adviser, was the official coach; Dick Nelson, the physics teacher and yearbook adviser, chaperoned on trips when Neu was unavailable.

The team got a surprise before the final game, Jans recalled.

“For the championship round, somebody hired a plane,” he said. “We flew from the Kalispell Airport ... to Spokane. That was the first plane I’d ever been in. It might have been true for some of the other people, too.”

The winning season earned the school a two-volume World Book dictionary and a one-volume atlas, according to an Oct. 16, 1970, edition of the Flathead Arrow student newspaper. Each team member also walked away with a prize after the championship game: a portable cassette tape recorder.

“At the time it was sort of a big deal. Not many people had cassette recorders,” Jans said. “The idea was, you’ll find this useful when you get to college to record your classes.” He laughed. “I never did.”

Johnson put hers to use in classes such as microbiology, which she studied on her path to becoming a doctor. After attending Whitman College and the Medical College of Virginia and completing her residency in Denver, Johnson returned to Kalispell to practice medicine.

Cummings double-majored in electrical engineering and business marketing at Montana State University. He has worked for Applied Materials, formerly Semitool, for the last 25 years. He also has continued to play music, most recently with the jazz group La Nota.

Huber went to Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins University and spent several years in Asia as an international banker. He currently is market president of U.S. Bank in Helena.

Jans earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked in the Boston area as a software engineer ever since. Today he develops software drug companies use to manage clinical trials.

All four have dabbled in trivia since high school, but nothing has come close to their “High School Bowl” victory.

“I think I peaked in my high school career,” Cummings joked.

Jans is the only member of the winning foursome who will not attend this weekend’s 40-year class reunion.

Class of 1971

The Flathead High School Class of 1971 holds its 40th reunion today through Sunday.

Today: Noon — Nine-hole golf scramble, Village Greens, Kalispell. Noon — three-hour raft trip on the Middle Fork. 6 p.m. — “Cheeseburger in Paradise” with burgers, soda, coffee and no-host bar, Del’s Bar, Somers.

Saturday: Noon — Zip line, luge and lift rides at Whitefish Mountain Resort. 6 p.m.: “Margaritaville” with dinner, no-host bar and entertainment by Sons of Beaches, Red Lion Hotel Kalispell courtyard.

Sunday: Noon— farewell brunch, Flathead Lake.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by email at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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