You, me and business: Merle Reagle

By DANA DITTMAR, CEO of the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce

Dana Dittmar

Dana Dittmar

When I was in the third grade, my mother introduced me to the world of crossword puzzles.  Hey, I was only eight, so they were pretty easy and, back then, pretty mundane.

But they caught my attention and throughout the years I became quite the “cruciverbalist” (which is a Latin-sounding word for crossword-ist). I spend hours on the weekends working the big Sunday ones and often buy puzzle books for when I’m on the road and Husband is driving.

For years, my favorite crossword creator was Merle Reagle. Challenging without being impossible (what is the shortest river in Indonesia?) but also exceptionally clever and thought-provoking. Rarely could I finish one without making one mistake or not filling in all of the squares.

Two years ago, I was privileged enough to have Merle as one of our celebrity guests at the Chamber’s fall expo, along with Col. Oliver North. I swear, I talked to both men, and I’m not sure which one was more interesting. World politics or my favorite passion? How to choose?

Merle and his wife Marie stayed the whole day talking to aficionados and selling copies of his puzzle books. He was gregarious and hilarious and could instantly make an anagram out of anyone’s name.

So I was devastated on Sunday when I read in the paper that Merle died unexpectedly on Saturday. He had gone into the hospital with pancreatitis but coded shortly thereafter. He was only 65.

To those who aren’t into crossword puzzles, there’s no way to explain the impact of Merle’s passing to the world.  He was a prodigy who sold his first puzzle to The New York Times at the age of 16.  Merle’s puzzles were a work of art in that they didn’t just test your knowledge of popular culture, history or geography.

Merle made you think about things in a whole new light. What two movie titles go together to make an even better movie title? (Taxi Driver Crash.) And his puns were more than mere groaners. High long-distance call? (Yodel.) Sometimes you’d stare at a clue for so long until you finally realized you were using the wrong definition of one word that changed the whole thing!

Merle was famous as one of the few on the planet who had a full-time career making puzzles. He was featured in the documentary Word Play that garnered so much attention that he was animated and starred on The Simpsons as himself, when Bart’s sister Lisa discovered the joys of the puzzles.

Unfortunately, Merle didn’t leave behind a bevy of unpublished puzzles.  And if you’re a fan, you’ve probably worked every one you’ve ever come across. They’re so memorable, you only need work them once. Ironically, I just finished my last Merle Reagle puzzle book last week.

The only up-side for me is that there are about four old issues I never bought. I’m sure they’ll cost me a fortune on eBay, but I will find them! And Marie assures us his work will be kept alive on his website: sundaycrosswords.com.

There are lots of wonderful crossword puzzle creators out there who do wonderful work. But there will never be another Merle Reagle. And I will miss him.

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