Merl Reagle had the soul of a copy editor and the style of a stand-up comedian. During his too-short life he was both of those and much more: musician, songwriter, author, and one of the world’s great puzzle masters. If you love crosswords – not cross words – send up a prayer of thanks to Merl.
My friend Merl died suddenly last week at the age of 65. Reports said the cause was an attack of acute pancreatitis. I am not writing this to note his passing but to celebrate a remarkable life spent swimming in the English language. “You need two things to do what I do,” he once told me. “You have to be passionate about words, and you have to be curious about trivial stuff on lots of different topics.”
Merl created his first puzzle at the age of 6. By the fifth grade, one childhood friend of his told me, Merl was the richest kid on the block. He would create puzzle questions, bring them to school, and offer them to his classmates. If a kid hit the right answer, Merl gave him a quarter. If the kid was wrong, the kid delivered to Merl a nickel. At the end of the day, Merl’s pockets would jingle with change.
He sold his first puzzle to The New York Times at the age of 16. Put in historical perspective, the crossword puzzle as we now know it was created in 1913 by a man named Arthur Wynne. That makes the crossword 102 years old. Merl created and sold his own puzzles for 49-years, almost half the lifespan of the form, giving joy, enlightenment, and that common affliction, the head scratch, to a half-century of word nerds.
(Arthur Wynne, by the way, died in Clearwater, Florida, in 1945. Almost exactly 70 years later, Merl died right across the bridge in Tampa. Given the influence of those two patron saints, someone should build a shrine and turn West Florida into the Canterbury of crossword pilgrims.)
Merl had moved to Tampa with his wife Marie to help care for her mother. His house may have been in the subtropical humidity of Tampa Bay, but his heart was in the desert. I met him in 2008 in Tucson, Arizona, where Merl was a legend. He had grown up there, made his mark at the University of Arizona, honed his puzzle skills, and grew into one of America’s great puzzle makers, a language genius in his own way, a wit and a consummate performer.
He was one of the co-stars of Wordplay, a documentary on a national crosswords competition. And in one of the true marks of having made it in America, he appeared as himself in an episode of the The Simpsons in which he shows up to coach brainy Lisa, who becomes obsessed with puzzles.
The occasion of our meeting was the first Tucson Festival of Books back in 2009, an event that has grown into one of the country’s great literary festivals. People flocked to hear Merl perform. His pockets stuffed with tiny bits of trivia or word wisdom, he would challenge the audience with questions. If you came up with an answer, Marie would deliver a candy kiss to your seat. The audience member with the most candy would win a door prize.
I watched him – and he watched me – over the next seven years at the reading festival. We shared meals at the hotel, traveled once on the same plane back to Tampa, and would catch up on occasion for a meal. Once he showed up at Maggiano’s restaurant in Tampa, the surprise celebrity guest at my wife’s birthday party.
My wife Karen loved Merl. He taught her tips for solving Sudoku puzzles – he was a master at that, too. I once threatened to sue Merl for alienation of affection. For years I had been the one to ignore my spouse at the breakfast table, my head buried in the sports section. I got over that. But now it was Karen ignoring my entreaties, pencil in hand, taming the day’s Sudoku and crosswords.
From the time I realized Merl’s greatness, my sole thought was to stump him, just once. One day Karen and I were stuck in traffic behind a Toyota van. I stared at the model name on the back hatch. “Ha!” I said, “I’ve got to send this to Merl.”
“Hey, Merl,” I messaged, “what car model name has all five vowels in it?”
“Sequoia,” he wrote back in an instant.
I will miss him. I told a friend today that I have never been in the presence of another person who made me feel as alert, engaged, and entertained. On most occasions when we met, he was in uniform: a black jacket and a dark shirt over his portly frame, the only thing separating his look from that of a Mafia don was that favorite tie with a crosswords pattern. Call him the Wordfather.
There’s a lot of talk these days in digital media circles about “gamification” of the news. I’m all for it. But for those who think of game strategies as an innovation, please consider the work of Merl Reagle and his predecessors and progeny. They created an experience that millions upon millions of users — readers! — held in their hands. Every day. Those who played were brainy, curious, some of them addicted to the experience and in love with newspapers, whatever their attachment to the news. Innovate that!
I am going online right now and getting me one of those crosswords ties.