Crossword creator Merl Reagle dies in Tampa at age 65

Merl Reagle created a monthly puzzle for the Tampa Bay Times’ Floridian magazine.
Merl Reagle created a monthly puzzle for the Tampa Bay Times’ Floridian magazine.
Published Aug. 23, 2015

TAMPA — Merl Reagle has crafted his last clue.

The Tampa resident, a superstar in the world of crossword puzzles, died Saturday morning in a Tampa hospital. He was 65.

Mr. Reagle was a nationally syndicated crossword puzzlemaker who created a monthly puzzle for the Tampa Bay Times' Floridian magazine as well as crosswords and other puzzles for the New York Times and many other publications.

Gregarious and quick-witted, Mr. Reagle had a remarkable knack with language, including the ability to look at a sign or a person's name and rattle off several anagrams made from its letters on the spot.

His wife, Marie Haley, told the Tampa Bay Times he was hospitalized Thursday with acute pancreatitis.

"He spent the night in a lot of pain, but we thought we had a game plan for him," she said. "I went home to get some clothes and the laptop — he wanted to do a couple of things.

"I was just ready to walk out the door and there was the phone. I thought it was Merl calling me, 'Oh, by the way, I need … ' It was Memorial Hospital. He had coded." His condition worsened and he slipped into a coma.

Haley said his medical condition came on suddenly. "He had no backlog" of future puzzles.

Mr. Reagle's weekly puzzles were syndicated to about 50 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Times deputy managing editor Amy Hollyfield, who oversees Floridian, said readers will be saddened by the news.

"Merl has been a reader favorite for years and a treasured part of Floridian magazine. It was always fun to see what he would come up with each month to test our brain power."

Mr. Reagle was born in New Jersey, grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in literature and writing. He started building crosswords at the age of 6 and sold his first puzzle to the New York Times at 16. During his earlier years, he was an actor, a rock musician, a stand-up comic and a copy editor for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

Eventually, he became one of the few people to make a living creating puzzles full time. Over more than 30 years, Mr. Reagle crafted more than 4,000 puzzles.

In the past few decades, he had been doing it from his home in Carrollwood, where he and Haley moved after her father died so they could take care of Haley's mother, who had Alzheimer's disease. In 2011, Mr. Reagle created a series of puzzles for the National Brain Game Challenge, a fundraiser for Alzheimer's research.

In 2006, he was featured in a documentary, Wordplay, that focused on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, for which he was a judge and commentator. In one scene, Mr. Reagle crafted a puzzle on camera, using pencil and paper. In later scenes, famous crossword enthusiasts, including President Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart, were shown trying to solve it.

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After the documentary came out, James L. Brooks, the main producer on The Simpsons, saw it and liked it enough to create an episode of the cartoon featuring Mr. Reagle.

"It was Brooks' idea to have Lisa Simpson get hooked on crosswords, enter a puzzle tournament — and lose. Writer Tim Long fleshed out the rest of the plot. I thought the rendering of me was pretty great — lots of hair and almost no overbite," Mr. Reagle told the Times.

What made a Merl Reagle puzzle recognizable to his multitude of fans was a wickedly witty style that gleaned words and clues from culture high and low and interlocked them around themes like "Opera for Dogs" or "Double Features I'd Like to See" (Driving Miss Daisy/Nuts).

" 'Funny crossword' used to be an oxymoron," Mr. Reagle told the Tampa Bay Times in 2006. But when he started to seriously pursue puzzle construction, he brought to it his background in entertainment. Making his puzzles, he said, "is like stand-up without the pressure."

"I always try ideas out on people who really hate crosswords. If it makes them laugh, it passes the gag rule."

Mr. Reagle's last puzzle for the Times, "Writer's Camp," was based on the names of Florida authors. It appeared in the Aug. 2 edition of Floridian.

Constructing puzzles, he once said, "is about loving language. It's really a big playground."

Information from the Los Angeles Times and Tampa Bay Times files was used in this report.