MERL REAGLE THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
Merl Reagle, a beloved crossword constructor known for witty wordplay and clever clues, passed away on August 22, 2015 at age 65. His death, from acute pancreatitis, was sudden and unexpected.
Our heartfelt condolences go out to Reagle’s wife, Marie Haley, his family, and his friends. But rather than remember him with another obituary, we would like to celebrate the life and work of a man well-known for his warmth and good humor. As the crossword commentator Deb Amlen wrote on the New York Times Wordplay blog, “If Merl liked you-and he liked nearly everyone for one reason or another-he became your champion.”
Reagle was certainly a champion of this publication. In 1979, he made his first contribution to GAMES, and his most recent email arrived on a Friday afternoon in early August. He closed that note by challenging us to solve two favorite brainteasers from his childhood. “i’ll be here all weekend if you wanna know the answers!” he wrote, all in lower-case, which was his style.
1. Consider this sentence:
“The ______ doctor was ______ to operate because he had ______.” A common seven-letter word goes into the first blank; that same word is divided into two words that go into the second blank-no scrambling-and the word is divided again in a different place to form two different words that go into the third blank. What is that common seven-letter word?
2. What common, uncapitalized sixletter word contains five pronouns?
1. notable, not able, no table
2. ushers (us, she, he, her, hers)
“Wide Open Spaces,” Reagle’s first crossword for GAMES, ran in the November/December 1979 issue. In a moving tribute to Reagle, Will Shortz recalled that puzzle as a “66-word themeless with an eye-poppingly wide-open center.” It included this droll clue: “Ura Hogg’s sister.” (Answer: Ima!) Years later, Shortz admitted, they chuckled over this early effort. “But at the time the puzzle was brash, novel, and refreshing,” he noted.
Reagle only got more amusing. Solvers grew to love his off-kilter themes and humorous clues. His March 1995 crossword, “Thanks, You’re Beautiful,” offered this clue: “Had a full day as a plastic surgeon?” (Answer: “Raised a lot of eyebrows”!)
Reagle’s audience extended far beyond GAMES. His weekly Sunday puzzle appeared in roughly 50 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. And in the 2006 documentary Wordplay, his jocular remarks and verbal high-jinks stole the show-no mean feat when your costars are president Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show.
One revealing scene offered a glimpse into how Reagle’s quirky mind worked. Driving along the highway, he reacts to passing signs. “Dunkin’ Donuts,” he muses, speeding past the emporium. “Put the D at the end, you get Unkind Donuts... which I’ve had a few of, in my day.”
Wordplay inspired a 2008 episode of The Simpsons, “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.” In it, Lisa gets hooked on crosswords, enters a tournament-and promptly loses. Reagle created all the crosswords for the episode and even had a cameo. “I thought the rendering of me was pretty great,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2012. “Lots of hair and almost no overbite.”
How Reagle rose to become a jovial ambassador for cruciverbalism is itself an amusing story. Born in Audubon, NJ, on January 5, 1950, he moved to Tucson, AZ, with his mom and brother, Sam, after his parents separated. He wrote his first crossword at age 6 and at 16 sold his first puzzle to the New York Times.
Despite being precocious, the youngster had quite a bit to learn. Reagle recalled sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen with an old dictionary, struggling to find a 9-letter word with an F in the fourth place and a B in the sixth. “The only word I could find in that 1919 dictionary that would fit was SELF-ABUSE, which was defined simply as `masturbation,’” he wrote in a 1997 article. “I had no idea what that was, but it fit, so I wrote it in.”
In his twenties, Reagle worked as a newspaper copy editor, did stand-up, wrote questions for TV quiz shows, and even fronted a shortlived band called Greylock Mansion.
By the early 1980s, however, Reagle could make a fulltime living creating crosswords. He contributed puzzles to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and also served as a judge and commentator.
From 1999 to 2010, Neal Conan did play by play with Reagle for the ACPT’s final round. “I’ve worked with dozens, maybe hundreds of ‘broadcast buddies’ over the years and Merl was spectacular,” the former host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation wrote via email. “His quickness masked his preparation-every year, he studied the Championship Puzzle to work out jokes and quips ahead of time. Yes, he rehearsed his ad libs. But he was also devastatingly fast and funny. An absolute joy to work with.” Devoted crossword solvers shared that joy every Sunday by working their way through one of Reagle’s puzzles. He will be sorely missed.