Merl Reagle, 1950–2015

Photo from

Photo from

The crossword community is reeling this morning at the news that Merl Reagle just passed away today. He was only ill for a couple days, with acute pancreatitis from gallstones. It’s a shocking loss of an incredibly vibrant man.

Merl has been knocking puzzlers’ socks off for decades with his fearsome feats of construction, his groanworthy puns, his knack for uncovering delightful bits of wordplay that feed our souls. Before he began syndicating his Sunday puzzle, he was a seminal member of the “new wave” of crossword constructors back in the early Games Magazine era. He influenced and mentored so many people over the decades.

Merl was a gifted raconteur with a generous heart, a genuine friend to countless people. Many people’s first direct experience with him was at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where he had a savant’s knack for anagramming the letters on a nametag or, if the letters weren’t conducive to a good anagram, coming up with some sort of wordplay. I don’t know that anyone is quicker than Merl at this sort of thing.

Merl worked on game shows in L.A. before his puzzle days. He went on to be featured in the documentary Wordplay on the silver screen, and played himself in an episode of The Simpsons. He was in a rock band in the ’70s, too (he’s singing on this video). The consummate entertainer.

Last month, Merl emailed me (eschewing the shift key, as was his wont): “can’t help thinking of you on a daily basis. also could not help noticing that your last name has ‘renal’ in it from left to right. in fact, i’m hoping that ‘o my, renal day!’ is a smile inducer when the actual day arrives. i hope to see you at many, many more tournaments and i’m putting in my reservation right now to have lunch with you as soon as we’re in the same city together. (even ‘transplant’ is an interesting word, one of the few 10-letter words that’s spelled exactly the same as its pronunciation.)” The perfect combination of Merl’s unstoppable wordplay brain and his personal warmth. I will miss him terribly, and the ACPT will feel incomplete without him. Millions of people’s Sunday newspapers will also feel empty without Merl’s crossword to delight solvers.

My condolences go out to Merl’s wife, business manager, and soulmate Marie, and to those of you who have been friends with Merl for longer than the decade that I knew him. Such a deep loss.

Love and cherish you forever, Merl.

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64 Responses to Merl Reagle, 1950–2015

  1. Deb Amlen says:

    He will always be my hero for making you smile during that difficult time.

  2. Sam Donaldson says:

    Like many others, it was the clip of Merl constructing a puzzle by hand in “Wordplay” that first inspired me to construct puzzles. A few months after seeing the film, I was in Brooklyn for my first ACPT, and I met Merl. I told him of my constructing ambitions, and he was so sincerely supportive. In just a few moments, while signing one of his books, he told me about Cruciverb and other puzzle resources. On many fronts, I owe him so much.

    My last correspondence with him was about one of my reviews. I had called out a corner as being a little too hard. He walked me through the construction process and how the final product came into being. He wasn’t upset with my review or in any way combative. He just enjoyed sharing a little “behind the scenes” of his craft. At the time I got his reply, I thought it was cool. Looking back, it was an honor.

    Merl, please refrain from telling God what his name anagrams to until you’re past the gates. And thanks for being a pioneer in this craft in so many ways. Your legacy runs deep.

  3. Nancy Shack says:

    Amy, you have written a lovely tribute, which I hope will be read by many. He is gone way, way too soon.

  4. sheera says:

    Merl was my favorite constructor and I shall miss his puzzles.

  5. Derek Allen says:

    Just found out about his passing within the last hour. When I first got into the “crossword world” in the mid 90s, I actually had a great phone conversation with Merl and he taught me a lot about constructing and other aspects in literally a 30 minute talk. I, too, enjoyed his puzzles immensely, and his sense of humor came through quite well in his puzzles. I was always in awe at how he could seemingly effortlessly crank out Sunday size puzzles that were high quality EVERY week for years.

    It is very true: the ACPT will definitely be vastly different next April. The “crossword world” has suffered a tremendous loss.

  6. john farmer says:

    Indeed. A deep loss. That’s a beautiful remembrance, Amy. Condolences to Merl’s wife.

    And best to you too, Amy.

  7. Avg Solvr says:

    Terrible news. My condolences to his friends and family.

  8. Tom says:

    This was a really nice tribute, Amy. I certainly didn’t know Merl as long as many others, but my heart still aches just the same. I am so honored that Merl agreed to work on the Google crossword doodle with me, truly one of the highlights of my career. Just having him contribute the puzzle would have been enough, but he made the entire experience a joy. He had the whole team laughing and groaning on conference calls. We continued to stay in touch and he and Marie even went well out of their way to visit when they were in the Bay Area for a publishing event.

    My last correspondence was an email letting me know that he had a gag running in that day’s Bizarro comic:

    “when it came out to today i was almost as giddy as if it was my first published crossword.”

    While I’m devastated by the news, I’m amazed by how many people called him a friend. I’m happy to be among them.

  9. Steve J says:

    Really sad news. I never met him, but everyone I’ve encountered who has met him has nothing but wonderful things to say about him. And, personally, it was Merl’s puzzles in part that got me back into solving crosswords after a decades-long detour. I saw that puzzles didn’t have to be trudges through gobs of arcana, like I remembered so many being from my younger days. They could be playful and fun beyond the fun of solving a challenge.

    Condolences to all who knew him personally. The puzzle world lost a huge presence, but the people who knew him lost a friend.

  10. Joshua Kosman says:

    Thanks for this beautiful tribute, Amy.

  11. huda says:

    Very sad news, and a lovely tribute, Amy.

    I believe the mark of greatness is leaving something behind that changes hearts and minds. It can be new ideas and perspectives, it can be physical creations be they art, puzzles, books, discoveries, or it can be a unique way of being, of expressing your humanity, that inspires others. I did not know him personally, but it seems to me that Merl Reagle was a great man, by any of these measures.

  12. Phoebe says:

    Touching tribute and such a sad and untimely loss. His comment on my un-anagrammable name was that we were both named after birds. He will be missed by so many.

  13. Bencoe says:

    I first saw Merl on the Simpsons, so that makes him a celebrity in my book. I met him at the ACPT but had no idea he was in a Nuggets-era hard psych band! Wow!
    A shock to hear of his passing and the tournament and Crossworld will be different without him.

  14. Jeffrey K says:

    I was fortunate to be able to blog Merl’s puzzle for this blog a few years ago. A few things I said then still apply:

    “Earlier this week, I decided it is time to try to become a constructor. And then Merl does this. Once again, I see how far out of my league I am.
    I do know what to call this creation – brillliant! If they ever create a Crossword Hall of Fame, Merl Reagle will be a charter member. And this puzzle will be on the wall.”

    And in reference to a LIMERICK answer:

    There was a constructor named Reagle
    As famous as Snoopy the beagle,
    The words he would spin
    You’d groan, but you’d grin
    Then wish that his puns were illegal.

    I’ll miss you Merl.

  15. Stan Newman says:

    I am shocked and saddened beyond words.

  16. Adam N. says:

    I remember that the crossword episode of “The Simpsons” which he was on inspired me to make crossword puzzles during a hospital stay two years ago. Since then, I am still making crossword puzzles. I am so sad that he has passed away. He was a great man with a phenomenal knack for wordplay and he shall eternally live in the hearts of many. The Crossworld won’t be the same without him.

    Rest in peace, Merl.
    Touching tribute, Amy.

  17. Howard Gross says:

    I have wonderful memories of Merl, whose friendship and sense of fun made every Stamford crossword tournament a true “event”. This year, I competed in the tournament for the first time in many years, and was delighted to find one of his puzzles. Who can forget his appearance in the film “Wordplay”? To me, “Dunkin’ Donuts” will always be “Unkind Donuts”. I’ll miss him.

  18. Debbie says:

    Oh, how sad! Thank you Merl for all the wonderful puzzles. What a creative mind you had. I always looked forward to your Sunday crossword in particular. My heart goes out to your family and friends. Take care.

  19. TammyB says:

    Words fail me. Thanks for posting this. :-(

  20. Scott Carter says:

    Merl was one of my best friends. Since 1971. Crosswords were only one of his many talents. He was a brilliant composer. And journalist. And, when I first met him, his ambition was to be a novelist. He needed several lifetimes to realize his gifts. We were all lucky to be able to share with him the one life that he had.

  21. Steve Levy says:

    Amy, what a wonderful tribute, and what a tragic loss. My deepest condolences to Marie.

    I had the opportunity to spend some time with Merl every year at the ACPT, where I worked as a judge. Merl would often stop into the judging area and help the team correct papers; his relentless humor was always welcome in what was often an intense, high-pressure environment.

    In October 2013, Elissa Grossman somehow persuaded Merl to come out to the LA tournament, at which I was also a judge. Again, it was good to spend time with him, and as usual, he spent hours amusing the contestants and staff with his irrepressible humor.

    For people not intimately familiar with Merl’s work, I recommend that you find a puzzle named “Re-Fills”, which was introduced at the ACPT in 2003 or 2004. It is one of my all-time favorite puzzles, and I cannot imagine the feeling that Merl had, sitting in the back of the room, listening to 25 minutes of non-stop laughter as the contestants worked through his puzzle.

    His ability to anagram was legend, as was pointed out above. I have my own story about this. In 2006 or so, I was sitting at a table at the ACPT with a woman whose name is Bonnie Sirower. Merl sat down with us, looked at her name tag, and said “Bonnie, you must have left teenage children at home this weekend.” Taken a little aback, Bonnie replied “Yes! How did you know?” Merl immediately chimed back “Because your last name is an anagram of ‘worries’.”

    This is a great and tragic loss to all of us. RIP.

  22. Vic Chandhok says:

    Thank you Amy for this lovely tribute. I feel lucky to have met Merl just the once.

  23. Jamie says:

    I just read this on another site and hastened over here where I knew I would find fellow mourners. It’s comforting to know I wasn’t the only person stunned by the news. Also great to hear from other puzzlers how he inspired and mentored them.

    Thank you Amy for emerging from a difficult recovery to write his obit here. Merl wrote many memorable crosswords, but the one I remember most is his Amy puzzle just weeks ago.

    It hurts to see the standard Sunday set-up for this page, with the Reagle listed. I thought that would last forever. I was wrong.

    Sundays won’t be the same again for a long time. Mr. Reagle was part of a good Sunday for me for so many years. I thank him.

  24. Greg Scandlen says:

    Now what will I do with my Sundays? I never met the man but I feel like he was one of my best friends.

  25. Paul Coulter says:

    I only met Merl once, but you could tell instantly what a genuinely kind and generous man he was. Within a few seconds, he told me that my name’s anagram is Pal o’ Culture. This was three years ago at ACPT and he noticed I was doing the Times jumbo cryptic between rounds. He said he thought that would be stressful, but I told him they’re actually very calming, and we chatted about constructing cryptics. I was just getting into constructing American crosswords at the time, and he was incredibly supportive. Merl, you will be missed.

  26. Heather Hall says:

    I understand Marie’s loss, I too, was a widow at 64.
    But…. What are we going to do without our Merl Reagle Sunday Crosswords? His genius is not replaceable.
    May it give comfort to all who knew and loved him that even strangers feel his loss.

  27. jimtazzeo from canada says:

    my sunday mornings will never be the same…..will miss his puzzles immensely

  28. jimtazzeo from canada says:

    my sunday mornings will never be the same … will miss his puzzles immensely

  29. Rey Barry says:

    Thanks, Amy, for a fine tribute. Merl’s is my one Sunday puzzle, always done on Saturday, so his death changes my life forever. It was said in the Washington Post tribute that because his puzzles go to the syndicate 3 weeks in advance, this weekend will have the usual new puzzle. If so, it’s not in the places where I know I can find it each weekend. They all have the Homophone puzzle from last week.

  30. Alan Miller says:

    I now have no reason remaining to subscribe to the weekend paper. My favorite part of the week will now be relegated to past Merle puzzles. Rest in piece my friend and thank you for all the wonderful wordplay. You always brightened my day

  31. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Merl being Merl in an unused 2007 interview for a documentary: engaging, funny, full of wordplay and crossword themes, wry. Thanks to Ellen Ripstein for sharing the link on Facebook.

  32. Debbie says:

    Thank you Amy for the links. I enjoyed the documentary clip. What a quick wit!!

  33. Bill V. says:

    I didn’t know Merl but spent Sunday mornings with him for decades. I loved his humor and puns. I would always get an eyeroll from my wife when I would relate a pun or two to her in the early morning before she had her coffee. Sunday’s will not be the same but the joy he gave us will always be with us. Rock on Merl!

  34. Norm says:

    thanks for the stories & the links. i’ve probably been doing merl’s puzzles since the mid- to late-70s. he ran for years in the chronicle sunday magazine, which was then printed on nice heavy glossy stock, and i would fastidiously use a pilot ultra-finetip marker and fix the “occasional” (cough, cough) mistake with white-over. of course, the chronicle down-sized and ended the magazine and moved him to a newsprint section, so i’ve been doing him on-line the last umpteen years – even when traveling abroad. it just wasn’t a proper sunday morning without the time’s puzzle and merl’s. it’s hard to imagine a sunday without him.
    norman vance [no craven man]

  35. Roy P says:

    Sunday mornings will not be same without your Sunday Crossword puzzles. I will miss you Merl.

  36. Hans H. says:

    I was wondering why last week’s puzzle was repeated. Now I know the reason why.
    I always saved his puzzles for last. I shall miss his humorous and often diabolical constructions. My brain will miss the exercise! Rest well, my friend!

  37. Marilyn R. says:

    I shall miss him as if I knew him. His wit and charm shone through the puzzles he created. Of course it will leave a hole in my Sundays, but nothing like the hole in the lives of the people who loved him and whom he loved. My heart felt condolences to his wife and family. You were blessed to have him in your lives and I grieve for you that he was taken so young.

  38. Tom says:

    I found merl back around 1983 or thereabouts in a Dell crossword magazine and have solved (Read: attempted) his puzzles right up to his death. What a terrific puzzlemaker! Every Sunday morning for forever it seems I solved his puzzles. I was always a couple /three letters short but what a great exercise from a man who could make words sing. It was such an empty feeling this morning not finding his puzzle and then reading what happened to him. Its been over 30 years since I started with merl and it really seems like I’ve lost a lifelong friend.

  39. Susan Jerez says:

    I knew Merl as an undergrad in Tucson in the 70s. He wrote hilarious short stories. He had us all falling off our chairs with one featuring turnip greens. He was a little shy then. It’s wonderful to see how he took the world by storm. Shocking to read that he’s gone–a great loss. He will be sorely missed. An unforgettable and irreplaceable man.

  40. Sally P. Davis says:

    I was lucky enough to sit next to Merl at the 2008 ACPT in Stamford. He was so engaging and encouraging when he found out it was my first venture into the tournament world.

    He was one of a kind. He will forever have a special place in my heart.

    My deepest condolences to his family and friends.

    RIP, Merl.

  41. Kari Reitan says:

    So saddened by the news of Mr. Reagle’s passing.
    His crossword puzzles were a joy and brought much
    amusement and happiness to cruciverbalists nation-wide.
    He will be deeply missed. Condolences to his wife,
    family and friends.

  42. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Here is the puz version of Merl’s final puzzle, which ran in newspapers today.

  43. Elise Bush says:

    What sad news to learn that Merl Reagle has died! I just said to my partner, “Most people look forward to Friday at 5 pm, but I look forward to Sunday at 5 because that’s when I sit down to Reagle’s Sunday crossword.” It’s the only crossword I regularly did, and I greatly enjoyed his humor.
    Condolences to his family, friends, and many fans.

  44. ArtLvr says:

    Amy, many thanks for the postings about Merl — it’s very sad news but a great tribute. I hope you are continuing to make a good recovery yourself. Having just recently had surgery like Merl’s, I’d note that age doesn’t have much to do with it, but excessive unintended weight loss in a short period of time is a very common warning signal. I’m glad to report I’m fine now… just a lot slimmer!

  45. CG says:

    What a very special and talented man! My thoughts are with his wife and family!
    My Sunday mornings have been set aside for Merl for a very long time. I would joke with my husband that once I had coffee in hand I was ready for my ‘date with Merl’.
    His crosswords were filled with warmth and wit and I am sure I am not alone in saying it felt as if he were right there urging you on with his clues and making you smile and laugh as you reached those aha moments.
    Thank you Merl!

  46. Marjorie says:

    I had to read the notice twice to be sure it was true. So sad. Merl’s puzzles were like a haven to me. Could somehow cncentrate on them when I couldn’t concntrate on anything else. Thanks for transporting me to your world, Merl; if only for a short time every week. Funny, witty, clever. The legacy you left is unique and remarkable. Marjorie

  47. Dele says:

    What a sudden and stunning loss. His puzzles were without equal, and so was he. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting or corresponding with Merl, I still feel like I’ve lost a friend — and so I can only imagine how much deeper that feeling is for those who did know him. My condolences and best wishes go out to all who had that privilege. You will be fondly missed, Merl.

  48. Victoria says:

    Every Sunday morning I would hop out of bed, get my coffee and laptop then hop back into bed to do Merl’s crossword. Yesterday was no different then I said to my husband “Hey, this is the same crossword from last week” and my husband jokingly said “Did he die?”. I googled his name and my heart sank when I read that he really had passed away. My Sunday mornings will never be the same. RIP Mr. Reagle, there’ll never be another quite like you!

  49. Justin says:

    I’m not exactly a big contributor on this blog, but Merl’s puzzles have always been favorites of mine, and my mom (who got me into crosswords in the first place). Sad news and a big loss.

  50. Gabe Gonzalez says:

    That was a great tribute, Amy. It brought out all of his wonderful qualities.

  51. Gareth says:

    I’m offline for weekend and come back to this… So sad. A genius wordsmith and very kind too. (I only corresponded with him via email!)

  52. Jamie says:

    I already posted this in the Monday comments, but late, so it may be missed by Merl fans.

    For those who, like me, feel that Sundays will never be the same, Merl’s website announced that starting next Sunday and every week after for I don’t know how long, they will post a “Best of Merl” puzzle.

    I’m so glad they will.

    • Lois says:

      Sympathy and other comments can also be expressed on the site by clicking “Contact Merl,” as welcomed by his wife, Marie, on the home page.

  53. claudia says:

    as the song says, “Sunday will never be the same.” what a loss.

  54. Ben Bass says:

    Two days later I still can’t believe it’s true. It’s unbearably sad.

  55. Kathy Schwanz says:

    After a weekend away at a lake cabin to celebrate our 35th anniversary, my husband & I came home to what I thought would be the usual routine of laundry, sucking-up-to-the-cat, and preparing for the work week. When my husband heard an anguished, “Oh no,” he asked what happened. I told him about Merl. Even though he thinks we crossword folks are a bit ‘out there’, he was sympathetic. I cannot believe he’s gone, but I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to participate in Merl’s wonderful gift of crossword play.

  56. Jason Hunt says:


    Seems fitting for a guy who was larger than life, hale and merry.

  57. Alec D says:

    On Sunday the 23rd I quickly noticed Merl’s puzzle was not posted on the Washington Post website. I immediately thought said to myself that I hope nothing is amiss. I googled his name to receive the sad news. I met Merl at a NYT tournament a number of years ago to compliment him on a recent puzzle. He was most gracious. I’ll remember him and especially every Sunday, where he was an eagerly awaited presence.

  58. V.MCBRIDE says:

    A very sad day. He was a steady foe on Sunday morning. RIP MERLE, thank you.

  59. Lawrence Wright says:

    My Sundays won’t be the same. RIP.

  60. JoAnn Garrity says:

    I love crossword puzzles. I found Merl’s by accident as I was surfing the web one day.
    I was so upset to learn of Merl’s sudden death. Every Monday I would print out the puzzle and work on it during lunch hour at work, if I didn’t finish it, I would take it home and work on it. When I read the news, I was so sorry.
    The puzzles were so clever and always had an interesting theme. Very challenging.
    Merl was one in a million. Condolences to his family and friends.

  61. Kelly Thatcher says:

    Thanks, Amy. It’s finally beginning to sink in, incredibly.

    I especially appreciated your sharing merl’s remark about the word “renal” — how typical! Know that, even though we don’t know each other, I’ve been keeping you in my prayers since before the transplant.

    Thanks again for the beautiful tribute.

    (AKA Kelly Clark)

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