Like Most Americans, the McKees Are Neck-Deep in Bills, but They're Green Ones Thanks to Tic Tac Dough

UPDATED 09/15/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/15/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

Who plugged J.R. may not be known until the cows, or at least striking actors, come home, but last TV season's other cliff-hanger is now resolved. Lt. Thom McKee, 24, the Navy jet pilot who won an unprecedented 57 straight matches on Tic Tac Dough before the program went into reruns last June, finally has been shot down in new taped segments. McKee's nine-week streak of 88 games, however, had the happiest ending that even television could come up with. The handsome flier walked off with $312,700 in cash and prizes, making him the Ace of Aces of game show history.

McKee notes that his loss to computer analyst Erik Kraepelien came during the new season's 16th show, on a question that he really couldn't answer (Q. What leading actress appeared in both The Wind and the Lion and Starting Over? A. Candice Bergen). "I'm happy it ended that way," says Thom. "I would have hated it if I'd missed one I knew down deep, or if I'd made a stupid goof." As it was, McKee successfully answered 353 out of 385 questions to surpass the Guinness record mark of $264,000 won by Teddy Nadler on The $64,000 Challenge from 1956 to 1958. To avoid even the appearance of collusion that marred '50s quiz shows (previous champ Nadler wasn't implicated), Thom had been barred until his defeat from the festive post-game parties open to losers and the program's staff. But he did receive one kind of help. "Sometimes," he says, "I asked one of the crew to bring me a Di-Gel."

More steadying support came from Jenny, Thom's 22-year-old bride of a year, who was in the audience for each show. Originally both of them tried out for another cash-and-carry-on quiz, Play the Percentages, but Jenny, says Thom, "decided she'd be too embarrassed to compete on nationwide TV, and bowed out." She wasn't a bit shy in her enthusiasm for her mate, however, and her sis-boom-bah antics landed the attractive beautician on camera almost as often as Thom. Jenny said, "When it was all over, I had a lump in my throat. But now we're back down to earth and enjoying it."

The McKees are still sorting out the booty, including $199,450 in cash, that makes their new home in the Rancho Penasquitos section of San Diego look like a PX—six Buick Centuries, two Chevettes, three sailboats (Thom donated one to a Navy charity), motorized water skis, a piano, camera equipment, two canoes, a hot tub and 16 luxury vacations to spots like Rome, Paris and Tahiti. "We'll take the vacations that are for two," reports Jenny. "The ones that are for one person only, we'll have to skip." They already have earmarked a tithe for Thom's brother, a Baptist missionary in Togo, in Africa.

A native of Rome, N.Y., Thom says his only preparation for Tic Tac Dough was to occasionally thumb through a World Almanac. "He's always been like that," his mother, Margaret, reports. "When he was a young boy he used to take the encyclopedia into the bathroom with him." At Annapolis he graduated in the top third of his class ('77), majored in history and played football and lacrosse. While in flight school at Pensacola, Fla., Thom met Jenny (the daughter of a retired Navy pilot). "She gave me my new blow-dry look," he confesses.

Their good fortune has not changed their lives much. Jenny still styles hair —leaving for work at 8 a.m. while Thom suits up to fly his 1,200-mph F-14 Tomcat in mock dogfights at 20,000 feet above Miramar Naval Air Station. "Winning all that money wasn't the year's high spot," Thom says now. "My biggest thrill in 1980 was making my first nighttime carrier landing. Now, that's really a sensation!"

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