by George Zamora
SOCORRO, N.M., October 6, 1999 -- Not every New Mexico Tech graduate has gone on to ask the eternal question, "Is there a 'T,' Pat?," but Jason Ralph Coombs, a recent alumnus of the state-supported research university had his chance and gave it his best on a recent national broadcast of Wheel of Fortune.
Coombs, who graduated from Tech this past May with a bachelor of science in computer science and mathematics with highest honors, was the "big money" winner on Monday evening's installment of the popular television game show. He walked away from Pat and Vanna's familiar stomping grounds $27,300 richer.
"It was all cash, no prizes," says Coombs. "Of course,California will get 9.7 percent of that. And, if I get the money this year, it'll cost me about 29 percent to the feds; otherwise, 31 percent to the feds. . . . I may have to pay New Mexico income tax, also."
The Bosque Farms native ran into a slight mishap right before the start of the show when the Wheel of Fortune accounting department required proof of his Social Security number.
"When we were getting started, I mentioned that I didn't have mine since they no longer put it on the Tech IDs or the New Mexico State driver's licenses, but that I could have my Social Security card faxed to them," Coombs relates.
"After the show, however, I called my mom--as promised--to tell her how I did, telling her I did well, but not wanting to give everything away," Coombs reveals. "She refused to hang up; and, since we were talking long-distance on my roaming cellular, I eventually hung up on her.
"I couldn't get a hold of my brother or anyone else who could provide proof of my Social Security number, so I ended up revealing the show's ending to my mom in exchange for her faxing me a copy of my Social Security card," he explains.
The Wheel of Fortune show which featured Coombs was taped in late July of this year, but wasn't aired until Monday, October 4.
Coombs had tried out for the nationally televised and syndicated game show back in 1997 when a Wheel of Fortune contestant recruiting team stopped by Albuquerque, but it wasn't until this past summer when the Tech alumnus would make his sterling debut.
"Being a big winner, I got to talk to Pat Sajak and Vanna White at the end of the show," Coombs points out, "and I was incredibly nervous by that point. In looking back, though, they seemed like fairly regular people doing their job. After all, what they were doing is the same thing they do every day . . . except they have the challenge of being new and interesting each and every day."
While making last-minute preparations prior to the show's taping, Coombs also got to meet "the next Pat Sajak-in-training," who plays the role of Pat in a warm-up session for contestants.
"I thought he was just anybody," Coombs says, "but when they were warming us up, he went through all of the moves of Pat Sajak, more so, I think, than if he would have just been filling in for our convenience."
Coombs didn't limit his fun to just the Wheel of Fortune studio, though, while he was in the Los Angeles area; he also had time to tool around in a rented convertible with a friend, Steve Stalcup, who also is a former Tech student.
"The day before the show, we went out to Santa Monica beach and there were some promo guys there handing out tickets to television shows," Coombs recounts. "They asked if we wanted to see The Tonight Show or something, and I said 'No, we're going to Wheel of Fortune.'"
The promoter then made a disparaging remark, along the lines of "Oh, that show's not that great."
"But, I'm going to be on it," Coombs asserted.
"Well, then that's different," the promoter conceded.
"I believe my experiences at Tech helped in some respect," says Coombs, thinking back on his game show debut, "but I highly doubt my education at Tech had a pivotal effect on how I did. . . . Then again, maybe the education kept my mind warm."
When Coombs isn't featured on nationally televised game shows, he works at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.