Pat Sajak, the longtime host of the popular television game show “Wheel of Fortune,” will be retiring after this upcoming season.
After more than 40 years in that role, Sajak is like a member of the family for the show’s millions of fans.
A lesser-known fact about the Emmy winner is that he’s the chair of the board of trustees at Hillsdale College, a small Christian, classical liberal arts school in southern Michigan that is often branded as “conservative” and which one magazine has even described as being “at the heart of the culture wars.”
Founded by Freewill Baptist slavery abolitionists in 1844, Hillsdale defines itself as “nonsectarian Christian.” But Sajak’s many Catholic fans might be interested to know that Hillsdale has a thriving Catholic community of students and faculty — and has become something of a hub for converts to the Catholic faith.
An average of about 15 students from Hillsdale convert to Catholicism each year, Kelly Cole, a volunteer and member of the parish council at the nearby St. Anthony Catholic Church, which ministers to the students, told CNA.
Additionally, in recent years certain Catholic prelates have made visits to campus including Winona-Rochester Bishop Robert Barron, who gave the college’s graduation commencement address in May, and German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, who offered a lecture on campus in 2021.
Is Pat Sajak Catholic?
Sajak declined an interview with CNA. While his religious affiliation isn’t clear, a 1993 article from the Los Angeles Times reported that Sajak received an annulment from the Catholic Church. Sajak’s first marriage was with Sherril Sajak, but after they divorced, he married Lesly Brown, his current spouse of over 30 years, according to Hollywood Life.
People magazine reported that Sajak married Brown at a Catholic church in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1989. Outsider reported that this church was St. Mary’s.
A Chicago native, Sajak, who called himself an “unapologetic conservative” in a 2012 interview with the Hoover Institution, has Polish roots and described his upbringing as blue-collar. A Vietnam veteran, he served as a television weatherman before his time at “Wheel of Fortune.”
Since 2019, Sajak, who is 76 according to the History Channel, has been serving as chairman of the board for the school. But he’s been involved with the school long before he was the chair, serving as the vice chairman of the board of trustees beginning in 2003.
He said in his interview with the Hoover Institution that he came to Hillsdale as a result of his relationship with the school’s president, Larry Arnn, whom Sajak met when he served on the board of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.
In that interview, he praised the school for not taking government funding, something that Hillsdale prides itself on.
The school was included in the Princeton Review’s 2024 edition of the nation’s best colleges, earning a No. 3 ranking of “most conservative students,” a No. 2 ranking of “most religious students,” and a No. 2 ranking of having the “friendliest students.”
On Hillsdale’s website, the school prides itself on a core curriculum that “considers the spiritual and intellectual inheritance of the Western Tradition and provides a fuller perspective on the world and its workings.”
From the school’s longtime English professor David Whalen’s perspective, the college’s “traditional, Great Books-heavy curriculum” inevitably brings students into contact with many ideas that are influenced by the Catholic faith.
The Great Books curriculum consists of literature courses mandatory for every student.
Whalen, a Catholic who is also the school’s associate vice president for curriculum, said that the amount of Catholic conversions each year is a result of “grace” but “also the natural consequence of young people reading deeply in the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition and reflecting on their own beliefs.”
While the “great majority” of Hillsdale’s faculty and students are not Catholic, Whalen said that the atmosphere on campus is “highly collegial” and the Catholic community flourishes at the school.
“There are enough Catholic students, faculty, and staff to sustain a quite vibrant Catholic community and, at the same time, integrate with the campus as a whole,” he said. “This makes the college attractive to Catholic students, as does its traditional curriculum and strong academics.”
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Being a minority on campus, Catholics would do well to brush up on their faith, Whalen said.
“This is a highly intelligent place, and people with different beliefs are going to be articulate and thoughtful about them. So, the Catholics here need to be so as well,” he said.
Taking Catholicism seriously
Cole, who converted to Catholicism the year she graduated from Hillsdale in 2002, said that she took Whalen’s literature course and it had a major impact on her conversion.
But it wasn’t just the literature classes that pushed her to convert, it was mainly the history courses, she said.
“And my history courses were taught by Protestants; it wasn’t Catholics that were teaching this or anything,” she noted.
Cole, 43, said that “trying to faithfully engage with history and the history of Christendom and talking about our Judeo-Christian heritage just led to me feeling like I needed to take Catholicism seriously.”
Today, Cole, her husband, Lee Cole — a professor at the college — and her seven children all reside in Hillsdale, where she volunteers the city’s St. Anthony Catholic Church, where she was received when she converted more than 20 years ago.
Defenders of the faith
Just as it did then, St. Anthony is the sole institution providing the sacraments to students on campus. But the church works hand in hand with the school’s “Catholic Society,” a student-led club that organizes social events and opportunities for students to receive the sacraments and brings speakers to campus.
Noah Hoonhout, a 2023 graduate who led the school’s Catholic student organization, said that the Catholic Society is “the most active” club on campus.
Among the recent speakers the society has sponsored are German Cardinal Gerhard Müller and American theologian George Weigel, both of whom drew large crowds, according to Hoonhout.
According to the Hillsdale Daily News, the school’s president called Weigel and Müller “ardent defenders of the immemorial teachings of the Christian faith and of the liberty of the human soul before God that Hillsdale College holds so dear” following their lectures in 2021.
Whalen told CNA that when Müller visited campus he was invited to say a few words at a dinner in his honor at the school’s president’s house.
Whalen said that Müller “gave an extemporaneous short talk that was both brilliant and beautiful. It was a great moment.”
The Catholic Society points students toward St. Anthony’s many ministries, one of which is specifically established for Hillsdale students called “The Grotto.”
The Grotto is a house located near campus where students can come and pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
Each week, the Grotto offers Mass, confession, eucharistic adoration, the recitation of the rosary, formation events, and social gatherings for the students, such as “convivium,” where dozens of students will gather for dinner at the house on Thursday nights and hear a talk on the Catholic faith from a professor at the school.
Hoonhout, 22, said that the Grotto is one of the “centers of Catholic culture” on campus.
In Sajak’s long tenure at “Wheel of Fortune,” he has earned several awards, including a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2019, Guinness World Records deemed him to have “the longest career as a game show host for the same show,” which was 35 years and 198 days at the time, according to abc.com.
Although not much is known about what Sajak will do following retirement from “Wheel of Fortune,” Hillsdale has said that he will continue serving in his role as chairman of its board of trustees.
His role at the game show will be taken over by celebrity host Ryan Seacrest. Sajak’s longtime co-host, Vanna White, reportedly will remain with the show.
“Well, the time has come. I’ve decided that our 41st season, which begins in September, will be my last,” Sajak tweeted on June 12. “It’s been a wonderful ride, and I’ll have more to say in the coming months. Many thanks to you all.”
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.
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