Merl Reagle, the imaginative and irrepressibly amusing verbal virtuoso who created the crossword puzzles published each week in The Washington Post Magazine and in many other newspapers, died Aug. 22 in a hospital in Tampa. He was 65.
He had entered the hospital Thursday after an attack of acute pancreatitis, his wife said.
The Sunday puzzle that appears in the Aug. 23 magazine is his work. Typically, as a result of magazine production schedules, his puzzles would be sent in three weeks before they were to appear, said the magazine’s editor, Lynn Medford.
Of the two schools of puzzle construction – one that demands an array of arcane facts and suggests a school-day quiz, and the other that assumes the aspects of playful entertainment – Reagle attached himself firmly to the latter.
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A man of laughter and merriment, he laced his acrosses and downs with clues that teased and tantalized and embodied the concept of crosswords as wordplay, not to mention plays on words. He clearly fancied puns, and fans came to applaud him for it.
Creativity shone through the clues and answers, and it took a bit of time before solvers recognized who they were dealing with and how to deal with his work. But they did.
Sometimes in their cleverness, the answers might mystify for a time even after they were entered into the proper squares.
For example: “atoz.” That was the four-letter answer to the clue that read “completely.” It took a few moments before it revealed its identity as “a-to-z.”
Once, he told the St. Petersburg Times, “crossword humor” was an oxymoron.
But he added: “We’re trying to decerebralize it. We’re trying to make puzzles so that you can talk about them to other people, so they have life off the page.
“The three-toed sloths, the Malaysian canoes . . . who cares?”
“He just had a lighthearted sense of humor,” Medford said. “People loved his puns.”
The circle of those who make a living from constructing crosswords is small indeed. But the niche occupation seemed to be made for Mr. Reagle, and he for it.
“He absolutely loved his work. He had so much fun” doing it, Medford said.
It was his zest for what he did that appeared to attract his fans, who were zealous in their enthusiasm for his weekly product. “They love him,” Medford said.
He was prominent in a 2006 documentary film called “Wordplay,” which considered the world of the cruciverbalists, the polysyllabic term sometimes used to describe those who create and try to solve the puzzles.
“Merl is one of the most well-known crossword puzzle constructors in the world,” said Patrick Creadon, the film’s director.
“He’s as good as they get,” Creadon told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2006.
Former president Bill Clinton was one of the celebrity-puzzle fans included in the film. But Creadon said, “As it turns out, Reagle sort of steals the movie.”
Although Reagle seemed made for his work and showed an early aptitude for it, it took some time before it became his full-time occupation.
He was born in Audubon, New Jersey, on Jan. 5, 1950. As a boy, he moved from New Jersey to Tucson, Arizona. He attended high school there as a teenager and sold a puzzle to a magazine for youths. In addition, he distinguished himself in his teens by becoming, shortly before he turned 16, the youngest person ever to sell a puzzle to the New York Times.
He went on to the University of Arizona, where his interest in words led him to journalism. He was a copy editor for the campus paper and spent three years as a copy editor for the Arizona Daily Star.
After that, according to the Daily Star, came a stint in San Francisco, where his day job, or perhaps his night job, was as assistant manager at a movie theater. But he kept at his freelance puzzle-making.
In 1979, he headed for Santa Monica, California. There he wrote for television game shows, including “The Home Shopping Game” and “Couch Potatoes,” about TV trivia.
By 1985, Reagle, in his mid-30s, came closer to his true calling. He became the maker of the weekly puzzle for the San Francisco Examiner and then for the Chronicle. Editors at other newspapers began to buy his work.
In 2006, he appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, “Oprah.” He constructed an O-shaped puzzle just for her. It wasn’t easy, he told the Daily Star. “Every single answer had to be about Oprah.”
Two years later came an appearance as an animated character in an episode of “The Simpsons.”
The Washington Post hired him in 2008.
His weekly puzzle went to about 50 papers, the Tampa Bay Times said.
It listed his survivors as his wife, Marie Haley; his father, Sam Reagle; and a brother, Sam Reagle.