Story by The Inter-Mountain:
ELKINS — People are sometimes disappointed when they meet a celebrity in person. But that wasn’t the case for one Elkins native, who 20 years ago became somewhat of a star himself. And while on that journey, he got to know a pop culture icon who turned out to be not at all disappointing, but rather sincere, genuine and real.
The year was 1999, and the television show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” quickly became a phenomenon. The iconic host of the show, Regis Philbin — who passed away from heart disease at the age of 88 this July 24 — was shining as bright as any star in television.
At that same time, Elkins native Doug Van Gundy was selected as a contestant during the show’s original two-week daily special event. And it was during this time that Van Gundy learned even the biggest celebrities are human too.
“He was great, a true class act,” Van Gundy said of Philbin. “I was around him for four days (during the original show in 1999) and he was exactly the same guy every day — a true gentleman that was warm and genuine. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Being raised in a small town such as Elkins, Van Gundy was somewhat overwhelmed by being thrust into the national television scene, especially on a show that at that time “everyone” was watching. But after defeating several other contestants to move into the show’s “hot seat” he quickly learned that Philbin was determined to make him as comfortable as possible.
Immediately after being introduced to the audience, both in house and on television, Philbin showed his true colors when giving Van Gundy a little pat on his head while passing by him, as if to say, “You’ve got this, kid.”
“That’s the way he was,” said Van Gundy, who is currently an associate professor of creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. “My entire time there (on the show) he always encouraged me and was extremely supportive. He took a genuine interest in you as a person. And it wasn’t just me as a contestant; during the breaks he’d go talk to people in the audience.”
After ending his stint on the show and becoming the first contestant to win $250,000, Van Gundy likely felt his time with Philbin had come to an end. But that wasn’t the case, as invitations to the show’s tournament of champions, 10th anniversary episode and several other promotional events followed.
“Each time I saw him, he remembered everything about the encounter before,” Van Gundy said. ” When I went on ‘Good Morning America’ with him, he pulled me aside and introduced me to the vice president of ABC. That’s just the way he was, though, he took time to get to know you. On the set of the shows he knew every member of the crew by their name.”
“He was a very warm, funny and down-to-earth person,” Van Gundy said. “He was full of energy and after getting to know him I became a fan for life.”