Pat Sajak says goodbye to "Wheel of Fortune" after 43...

Pat Sajak says goodbye to "Wheel of Fortune" after 43 years. Credit: CBS/Carol Kaelson

Vanessa Ganz, of Shoreham, doesn't exactly remember the first time she saw Pat Sajak — she was just a baby, sitting there night after night with her grandmother, watching strangers buy vowels — but she vividly recalls the time they met. That was at the Dec. 17, 2017, taping, when she won $58,000 in cash and prizes, a “Wheel of Fortune” record for Long Island contestants at the time.

Between commercial breaks “he acted like he was hosting for the first time,” says Ganz, a sixth-grade teacher at William Paca Middle School in Mastic Beach. “It wasn't as though he turned it on for the camera. He was kind, funny, and interested in learning about you. It was like I had this larger-than-life personality in my living room the day before and now I was face to face with him, as if nothing were different.”

Overthinking reasons for Sajak's longevity is like overthinking a rock's: They are there, they have been there forever, and there they remain. Or at least Sajak remains until this Friday, when he caps a Guinness Record-breaking 43-year run as “Wheel” host. He'll be replaced in the fall by a guy who himself was a mere babe when this tenure began (Ryan Seacrest, age 7, at the time).

But ask a fan — really, any fan — and they'll come up with a short checklist just like Ganz's (then Verni — she was married in 2022). Invariably that begins with “likable,” followed by “quick-witted.” “Nice” always seems to fit in there too.

In fact, starting in 1981 — when Sajak, then 28, replaced another game show legend, Chuck Woolery as host of the NBC daytime version — he absorbed the rhythms of this game until the game had absorbed his rhythms, and they became as one. “Wheel” was never as serious or cerebral as companion “Jeopardy” and consequently never had the prestige either. Same with Sajak and Alex Trebek (now Ken Jennings). This show, this host, is about juggling letters and vetting those vowels. Sajak's personality was bespoke to the task.

At once unflappable and self-effacing — brisk and easygoing — his four-decade-plus balancing act must have been as difficult as it now looks. If too serious, then he would have become pompous, if too self-effacing, then “Wheel” would have turned silly and irrelevant, and by association, those multitudes of fans too who had waited a lifetime to spin this most famous of wheels.

Instead of one of the most successful shows in TV history, “Wheel” could've been roadkill scattered amid hundreds of other game show has-beens.

The Sajak curriculum vitae can be reduced to a few lines too: Born in Chicago, working class family, enlisted in the army, sent to Vietnam where he was an armed forces radio DJ. After the war, he became a weather forecaster for WSM, a Nashville TV station, then headed to LA's KNBC in 1977. Weather can be boring there, so Sajak added shtick to his delivery. “Wheel” czar and apparent shtick fan Merv Griffin hired him to revive a fading “Wheel.” By the mid-'80s, the syndicated “Wheel” — launched in '83 — was perhaps the most popular show on the planet.

There were certainly other reasons besides Sajak for this. Vanna White joined in 1982, and quickly became the New Farrah Fawcett. No Vanna perhaps no Pat, but vice versa too. Sajak's pronounced Midwestern bland made her even more exotic and glamorous.

Nevertheless, this Friday we all say goodbye to a household name, then welcome another in the fall. Like Sajak, Seacrest is a seasoned broadcaster whose edges have been smoothed so completely that he should theoretically appeal to just about everyone. But what Seacrest doesn't have is that 43-year tenure. He doesn't have generations of fans, like Ganz, who now watches with her 1-year-old son, Thomas.

Sajak is “irreplaceable,” she says.

Who knows? Maybe he is.

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