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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Reagle’s legacy: a puzzle mastermind

Puzzle master Merl Reagle, who died Aug. 22 at the age of 65, is being honored and remembered for his enthusiasm, charm and brilliant mind, not only by friends and colleagues, but also by the readers of his crossword puzzles.

“After he talked, people would rush the stage like he was Mick Jagger because they just wanted to talk to him personally one on one, and thank him for his puzzles,” Frank Rizzo said of the late Merl Reagle about the book and speech tours he did. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Rizzo, a writer at the Hartford Courant, and Scott Carter, the Executive Producer of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” had been friends with Reagle since their days on the staff at The Arizona Daily Wildcat back in the early 1970s. Carter was the arts editor, Rizzo was the theatre and movie reviewer and Reagle was a copy editor who wrote album reviews and created some puzzles for The Daily Wildcat.

“He was king of the copy desk, mainly because he was a good editor, but it was his headlines, especially the headlines that he couldn’t run, that amused us all, and we all knew that he had an amazing mind,” Rizzo said.

Reagle was the most incredible copy editor that any publication could ever have, Carter said, because he had an encyclopedic grasp of synonyms and the ability to figure out counts of words, one reason he was so great at figuring out headlines.

“When he was copy editor he would have all the other guys on the copy desk write down and scramble up six five letter words and then surprise him,” Carter said about Reagle who was a copy editor at both the Arizona Daily Star and The Citizen. “If he couldn’t unscramble them all in 30 seconds, he would have to buy them lunch, but if he could unscramble them all in 30 seconds, they would have to buy him lunch. He never lost, so eventually they gave up.”

Reagle attended Catalina High School in Tucson and, at the age of 16, became the youngest person ever to sell a crossword puzzle to The New York Times. Rizzo said Reagle was paid $10 for that crossword puzzle.

Both Rizzo and Carter said that Reagle didn’t always think he could make a living creating crossword puzzles, because he knew the world of crossword puzzles was very difficult. Rizzo explained that once someone submitted a puzzle back then, it didn’t run with that person’s name on it, and the newspaper owned the puzzle.

“He had an endless curiosity for everything, [and] not just words; his mind was just continuously whirling,” Rizzo said.

Reagle, although most popular for his puzzles, was multitalented and had a variety of interests. He was an entertainer, composer, performer, writer and a musician.

He was even the lead singer of a 70’s rock band called Greylock Mansion. Carter said that he thought at the time he was going to be a household name for his music.

“He could [have] spent his life doing three or four different things,” Carter said. “He was always funny and entertaining. It was like he was a game show host when he was a copy editor, because he would keep a constant stream of questions or he’d be challenging you with puzzles and be doing all of these things at once.”

Rizzo said that he even had a stint as a game show writer in California, where he met his future wife, Marie. Together, they figured out that they could control their puzzles, get credit and even make some money if they worked for themselves.

“He really did this major [imaginative] and entrepreneurial leap that no one else did, in terms of self publishing and going from newspaper to newspaper,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said that Reagle convinced the newspapers that his puzzles would attract more attention and readers.

“Of course he’d charm the pants off of everyone there because he had this continuous infectious enthusiasm for words and language, and it’s hard not to get swept up into Merl land,” Rizzo said.

Reagle won over newspapers one by one, until he had more than 50 major newspapers publishing his Sunday puzzles.

Rizzo said that he once asked Reagle what he would want his last puzzle to be if he ever retired.

“He wanted to do an elaborate treasure hunt where he would bury $10 somewhere, and it would be a very interesting puzzle,” Rizzo said. “All the clues would be in the puzzle to where the treasure is, and you could do the puzzle on your own and not think that there was any treasure, but if you looked at it carefully, you would realize that it was a treasure. I bet it would have been a national [phenomenon] where all of America is trying to find Merl’s treasure, but in the end Merl’s treasure really was himself.”


Follow Chastity Laskey on Twitter.


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