Reflecting at the end of an era: Park City, Utah. January 20, 2006. Susan and I clamber onto the bus that stops at the edge of the snow-filled parking lot. We remain standing, as the bus is full. We’re trying to explain to the driver that we’ve no idea where we are and only a faint idea of where we’re going.
“Hey, Vic!” a familiar voice calls from somewhere behind. I look around. It’s Merl Reagle, of Tampa, Fla. Syndicated crossword constructor extraordinaire and possibly the most jovial guy I’ve ever known. “I know where the house is.” He nods. Merl’s going where we’re going – to a party hosted by “Wordplay” filmmakers, Pat Creadon and Chris O’Malley. “Wordplay” is to have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival tomorrow. And over the course of the succeeding year, a million people will watch Merl steal the show.
Merl died Saturday morning, August 22. He was 65. Admitted to the hospital Thursday with stomach pains, he was diagnosed with pancreatitis. The most common cause of which is alcohol abuse, although Merl was a teetotaler. Pancreatitis, say the experts, usually subsides. Merl’s didn’t.
I read a 2003 article on Merl in an airline magazine … and started making puzzles the next day. I contacted Merl about this, and he encouraged me. I would meet him 18 months later at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. We became fast friends and had some great moments together.
Merl was born Jan. 5, 1950, in Audubon, N.J. He started making puzzles before grade school. His family moved to Tucson when he was 10. He sold a crossword to the New York Times when he was 16. He was once quoted as saying, “[T]he English language was the best toy a boy ever had.”
He attended the University of Arizona. In 1979, he persuaded the San Francisco Examiner to run a weekly puzzle by him. Then engineered its syndication to other papers, becoming the most successful independent cruciverbalist in history. His puzzles were infused with wit, puns, and inventiveness. The one he finished days before his death, “Things Are People Too,” is illustrative. Spoiler alert. This series of unrelated entries tells the story:
Warner Bros. stinker PEPE
Cartoon mother-in-law BATTLEAXE
Kid in Dagwood’s neighborhood ELMO
Road runner? AUTO
Glinda’s creator BAUM
Comedian who’s the subject of “The Joker Is Wild,” Joe ___ ELEWIS
Early TV comic Louis ___ NYE
Merl’s was a world of comedy. He lived to play with words and logic. He liked to work in coffee shops, so he could try out his jokes on others. To say he was beloved in the crossword community is an understatement. “Wordplay” wasn’t about Merl, but he was the star. A Times puzzle he made for the film was the basis for celebrity interviews. And he himself waxes eloquent while constructing the crossword on camera.
Along with Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, Merl was featured on an episode of “The Simpsons” in 2008 and on “Oprah” in 2009. He was the 2008 guest speaker at the Clinton School Puzzle Festival.
In addition to his wife Marie Haley, Merl is survived by his father and one brother, both named Sam. He’s already muchly missed.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.