When Joel Kupperman died of the COVID-19 coronavirus today in 2020, the mild-mannered, Cambridge-educated, retired academic was a distinguished university professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and one of the world’s leading authorities on Asian philosophy. A much-honored and visionary philosopher of ethics, aesthetics, and Eastern philosophies, colleagues hailed him as “a leading light and inspiration for so many of us . . . a trailblazer and a beautiful human being.”
For all their admiration, however, few who knew Joel as scholar and philosopher ever had the faintest notion he had once led a life completely the opposite of the soft-spoken and unassertive academic they revered. As his obituary in the Washington Post noted, “Between the era of Shirley Temple in the 1930s and before Jerry Mathers appeared on TV’s “Leave It to Beaver” in the late 1950s, Joel Kupperman may have been the most famous child in America.” From 1942 to 1952, beginning at the age of five and continuing to an awkward teen-aged 15, Joel Kupperman was the best-known contestant in a phenomenally successful radio (and later television) program called Quiz Kids.
Wearing a pint-sized cap and gown, Joel joined a rotating panel of extraordinarily intelligent children on weekly broadcasts competing to answer extremely difficult questions about science, math, the humanities, sports, and topical events. The program was the brainchild of Chicago public relations expert Louis G. Cowan, who later went on to produce shows such as Captain Kangaroo and The $64,000 Question, and to serve as president of the CBS television network.
Kupperman first appeared on “Quiz Kids” as a cute, eager-to-answer, garrulous kindergarten student with a penchant for explaining mathematical formulas and scientific theories with a winning, tooth-missing lisp. With a brilliance that far exceeded his age (his IQ was measured at 219, one of the highest scores ever recorded), Joel quickly became the program’s centerpiece celebrity, receiving as many as 10,000 letters a week.
During World War II, Joel and other Quiz Kids toured American cities, raising over $120 million in War Bonds. As the first among equals, Kupperman met celebrities from Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles, and Henry Ford to Abbott and Costello (who gave him a dog). He even appeared in a 1943 movie, Chip Off the Old Block, with Donald O’Connor.
Joel’s “career” as a child celebrity was stage-managed by his mother, who was present at every performance. Her ambition for her son’s career far outlasted Joel’s enjoyment of his fame. Not surprisingly, he found that being other parents’ “model student” –(Why can’t you be like Joel Kupperman?”) – came with a price. “Being a bright child among your peers was not the best way to grow up in America,” he said in a rare 1982 New York Times interview. “Even if you tried to be likeable, you felt resentment. I felt I suffered from it.” By the time he reached the mandatory retirement age of 16 in 1952, Joel had appeared in over 400 episodes of Quiz Kids and had been – and continued to be – thoroughly traumatized by the experience.
Constantly taunted by fellow students at the University of Chicago, where he received two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s in mathematics, Kupperman struggled to find a post-celebrity path forward, until an understanding professor suggested that the way to escape his past as a Quiz Kid was to get out of the country. Inspired by that advice, and propelled by an interest in Asian philosophy, Joel went to England, got his Ph.D. in philosophy several years later, and then, as professor Kupperman, joined the faculty of the University of Connecticut in 1960. Freed from his celebrity past – a life even his family was forbidden to talk about – Joel Kupperman went on to publish 10 books, scores of academic articles, and to become, in 2006, one of the University of Connecticut’s distinguished professors.
The story of Joel Kupperman’s once secret life is sensitively and powerfully told in his son Michael Kupperman’s highly acclaimed graphic novel All the Answers, published by Simon and Schuster.
Alexus McLoed, Joel Kupperman (1936-2020), warpweftandway.com
Michael Kupperman (Podcast), “The Professor’s Secret Life,” Grating the Nutmeg
“The Smartest Kid in the World Forgets ALL THE ANSWERS,”Simon and Schuster