ELKINS – People are sometimes disappointed when they meet a celebrity in person. But that wasn’t the case for an Elkins native, who 20 years ago has become something of a star himself. And on that trip, he got to know a pop culture icon who turned out not at all disappointing, but rather sincere, genuine and real.
It was in 1999 and the television show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” quickly became a phenomenon. The show’s iconic host Regis Philbin – who died of heart disease aged 88 on July 24 – shone as bright as any TV star.
At the same time, Doug Van Gundy, a native of Elkins, was selected as a nominee in the show’s original two-week daily special event. And it was around this time that Van Gundy learned that even the biggest celebrities are also human.
“He was awesome, a real class number,” Van Gundy said of Philbin. “I was with him for four days (on the original show in 1999) and he was the exact same guy every day – a true gentleman, warm and genuine. I can’t say enough good things about her.
Growing up in a small town like Elkins, Van Gundy was somewhat overwhelmed by his entry into the national television scene, particularly in a show which, at that time, was “everyone” was watching. But after defeating several other contestants to enter the show “harness” he quickly learned that Philbin was determined to make him as comfortable as possible.
Immediately after being introduced to the public, both in theaters and on television, Philbin showed his true colors by patting Van Gundy on the head as he walked past him, as if to say: “You got that, kid. “
“This is how he was,” said Van Gundy, who is currently an associate professor of creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. “Throughout my time there (on the show), he always encouraged me and was extremely supportive. He really cared about you as a person. And it wasn’t just me as a candidate; during breaks he would go talk to people in the audience.
After completing his stint on the show and becoming the first contestant to win $ 250,000, Van Gundy likely felt his time with Philbin was over. But that wasn’t the case, as invitations to the show’s Tournament of Champions, 10th Anniversary episode, and several other promotional events followed.
“Every time I saw him, he remembered everything from the meeting before”, said Van Gundy. ”When I went on ‘Good Morning America’ with him, he took me aside and introduced me to the vice president of ABC. That’s just how he was, however, he took the time to get to know you. On the show set, he knew each member of the team by name.
“She was a very warm, funny and down to earth person” said Van Gundy. “He was full of energy and after getting to know him I became a fan for life.”