March 8, 1959: Tonight’s the night that John Bellairs makes his television debut – live from Washington D.C. Fifty years ago tonight Bellairs, along with three other students, represented Notre Dame on the G.E. College Bowl program. In a battle of the wits with Georgetown University, these other Four Horsemen from Notre Dame buzzed in their answers but it was Bellairs who made the night memorable.
"It was well known that...John was a Chaucer expert," fellow contestant Thomas Banchoff recalls. A question was presented that would offer bonus points for every line of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that the team could quote in Middle English and, "John was the first to hit his buzzer. Any of us could have identified the reference, but John was able to reel off the next dozen or so lines, a strikingly erudite performance. He would have gone on but the point had been made."
"That was like throwing a lamb chop to a wolf," adds Al Myers. "He used to be able to empty rooms with that very recitation."
Charles Bowen doesn't know if Bellairs contributed more correct answers than anyone else, but confirms he ran up the score with the bonus points. "It looked as if he would get through the entire Prologue and half of the Knight's Tale before he ran out of breath – but there was a maximum score and they stopped him much sooner than that. Georgetown had ruled for an ungodly number of weeks, so it seemed a significant triumph and John certainly did his part to make our ephemeral victory a sweet one."
During the commercial break host Allen Ludden commented on Bellairs' ability to not only to buzz in quickly but also speak fluently in Middle English. Bellairs commented matter-of-factly, "My mother is Middle English. When I was a child, we spoke it at home all the time."
Fellow contestant Phillips Gibson relates that "even though all the contestants, the students, and the host broke out in laughter, after the show and even beyond, our team, and various other friends, were sure that Ludden had taken the 'Middle' in Middle English to be geographical; something like Southern or Midwestern English."
Two days later the triumphant Notre Dame team returned home where a crowd of 4000 students, professors and citizens turned out to welcome them back much like the Fighting Irish Football team. Bowen recalls hearing the chant 'Go Bellairs! Quote Chaucer!' - "a moment to make any English major's heart beat proudly."