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WV priest’s ‘Millionaire’ success to help alma mater

Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by Chris Dorst  Father William Matheny raises his hands for schoolchildren at St. Francis of Assisi parish grade school to pay attention during the viewing of the game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” on which Matheny was a contestant. Students and teachers watched him reach the $250,000 level Wednesday and will watch again today for the final results.
Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by Chris Dorst
Father William Matheny raises his hands for schoolchildren at St. Francis of Assisi parish grade school to pay attention during the viewing of the game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” on which Matheny was a contestant. Students and teachers watched him reach the $250,000 level Wednesday and will watch again today for the final results.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Before Father William Matheny was a priest in the Catholic Church, before he was the guy who staked out every local trivia tournament, he was a curious little boy at the St. Francis of Assisi School.

At the Catholic school in St. Albans, his teachers quickly realized he had a knack for memorizing things. Matheny’s memory was sharp — probably because he spent his spare time memorizing state capitals, counties across every state in alphabetical order, presidents in chronological order and any other list he could get his hands on.

“It’s weird. Certain things I can just remember, no problem,” Matheny said. “But don’t ask me where I laid my pen. My short-term memory is terrible.”

Matheny, 61, finally achieved one of his life’s goals and appeared on Wednesday’s episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The episode taped over the summer, and Matheny couldn’t resist coming back to the school that fed his curiosity for all those years to watch it.

With a lunchroom full of students, teachers, friends and family members, a group of about 200 people watched as Matheny kept answering question after question correctly. By the end of the half-hour episode, Matheny had won $250,000.

That wasn’t the end of it. Matheny, who also competed on “Jeopardy!” in 2013, will be back at the school today to watch the second half of his appearance where he’ll chase his $1 million dream.

“Academically, we were pretty advanced. I didn’t know that at the time, but I talked to my friends who went to public schools, and we were always about a year ahead of them,” Matheny said. “I was always encouraged to learn here. They could tell I had God-given gifts.”

Matheny said it is because of that encouragement that he will donate a large portion of his winnings to his alma mater. But it wasn’t just the school that prepared him for the show.

When Matheny was in third grade, his grandfather purchased a road atlas, and the two memorized state capitals, the largest cities in every state, the number of counties in every state and the total square miles of every state.

Matheny breezed through most of the questions on the game show — he says he just got lucky. At one point, he was asked what an ailurophile is. (A lover of cats, in case you we were wondering.) He knew the answer because, just recently, he submitted that question at a team trivia tournament as a possible question.

 His love affair with the show stretches back more than a decade. When the show first debuted in 1998, some of Matheny’s fellow priests recommended that he watch it. He didn’t catch the first few episodes, but as soon as he sat down to watch it, he was hooked.

He immediately tried to get on the show. He made it past the first round of phone interviews. He made it onto the show’s round of “Fastest Fingers,” where potential contestants race against other people to answer trivia questions. The fastest gets to move on alone and compete for the grand prize.

But his fingers were too slow. He knew all the answers, but he just wasn’t as fast as the others. He kept trying for 17 years, each time falling short. This year, he planned to give up.

A friend suggested he try one more time. This time, he applied to be part of a special week-long series of contestants who planned to give their winnings away to charity. The series would never materialize, but producers called him up anyway and invited him to Las Vegas to compete.

“I told people in churches from around the state to say prayers for me on either July 20 or 21 because those were the days that I could tape my show,” Matheny said. “There was a backlog of the group of contestants I was with, so we all taped on the 21st.”

Even though friends and family knew he had been selected as a contestant, they didn’t know how well he had done. He had to keep secret how much money he had won. Some other contestants who taped around the same time as he did will have to wait much longer, some until May of next year.

“I think it was more nerve-wracking watching it here than it was being there on the stage,” Matheny said. “I was hoping I wouldn’t look like a fool on TV.”

Each time the host, Chris Harrison, asked him a question, Matheny clenched his fists as he quietly mouthed the words to the episode. Each time he answered a question correctly, the room broke into loud cheers and hollers.

At the end of the show, friends tried to get Matheny to say if he would go on to win the grand prize.

“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Reach Jake Jarvis at [email protected], Facebook.com/newsroomjake, 304-348-7939 or follow @NewsroomJake on Twitter.

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