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Merl Reagle transformed modern culture into puzzle wit

Merl Reagle was a breakfast guy.

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Everybody thinks of him as a word guy, which he certainly was, but the word was coffee. Decaf. Merl didn't require artificial stimulants. His mind worked, near as I could tell, with the relentlessness of a hydroelectric dam. He transformed the torrent of modern culture into megawatts of wit.

I was lucky enough to live in the same city as Merl, and that meant I could eat breakfast with him in person, unlike most of his fans, who had to content themselves with his daily crossword, which was an entertaining proxy for Merl but nothing like the live show.

Merl and his wife, Marie Haley, treasured a good breakfast joint, and they had favorites all around the bay area, so every few weeks, the three of us would meet at First Watch in downtown Tampa or somewhere up Dale Mabry closer to their home.

Our breakfasts usually began with me laying out that morning's word jumble from tbt* on the table between us. Merl would solve it upside down before I had unscrambled the first word. I could have been annoyed, but for me it was like watching DiMaggio take batting practice.

I don't think I ever saw Merl ask for exactly what was on the breakfast menu. He had improvements to make, which is the way he saw the world: pretty good raw materials but so much better when you can mix them up like this! This is why I suspect he was disappointed that my wife and I never had a daughter so we could name her Audrey, which he had notified us at our wedding was the only anagram for Duryea.

Our conversations often centered on some recent bit of serendipity. Merl and Marie thrived on coincidences, which, I think, confirmed for them that the world respected pattern and meaning. There was always a Hollywood screenwriter or newspaper cartoonist or former FBI agent who had recently revealed himself to be a huge fan of Merl's puzzles. Good things always seemed to come from these discoveries, so it was hard to disagree with their world view. As the 100th anniversary of the invention of the crossword approached, I remember Merl and Marie leaning across the table to whisper that the daughter of the inventor of the famous puzzle was living in Clearwater. "We took her to brunch!" Of course.

It was over breakfast in the summer of 2012 that I asked him to create a puzzle for the Tampa Bay Times' new Floridian magazine. "How about a spiral?" he suggested, and the Hurricane was born.

And it was over breakfast that I asked him to help plan my mother's 70th birthday party. He devised a game show-style quiz, all the answers of which revealed details about my mother and the corner of Western Pennsylvania where she lives. A certain golfing great who was born nearby was the inspiration for a question about the inventor of the all-plastic club: Arnold Polymer.

The party was a blur of good spirits, with the better part of 100 people shouting answers over each other like they were selling pork belly futures. It was also bittersweet for me because my stepfather was suffering from advanced dementia. He couldn't enjoy Merl's bravura performance, but he could tell how happy my mom was.

Merl died suddenly on Aug. 22. I learned later that it had happened at almost exactly the moment I had been collecting that morning's Washington Post at the end of my driveway. Because it was a Saturday, the paper included the preprinted Sunday magazine — the one with Merl's puzzle in it. As I have done for the past eight months since I left Tampa, I set it aside while I made a pot of coffee.

Bill Duryea is the former enterprise editor of the Tampa Bay Times.

Merl Reagle transformed modern culture into puzzle wit 09/04/15 [Last modified: Friday, September 4, 2015 1:27pm]
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