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Native puzzlemaster has a way with words

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Will Shortz

Will Shortz, crossword editor for the New York Times, speaks Friday in Ball Theater at Wabash College. A native of Crawfordsville, Shortz would spend hours in the campus library studying the history of puzzles.

Will Shortz dished about life as crossword editor of the New York Times and stumped his fans with word games Friday at Wabash College.

When the Crawfordsville native wasn’t riding ponies on his family’s 50-acre Arabian horse farm or showing 4-H projects, Shortz would play with words. He earned a B+ for a junior high school essay dreaming of becoming a professional puzzle maker (“Will, you didn’t understand the assignment,” his teacher groaned) and doodled little puzzles on his schoolwork.

“I think Crawfordsville was a great place to grow up, a great mix of a town,” he said, speaking to a sold-out crowd in Ball Theater. “Rural, I wouldn’t call it urban, but there’s a sophistication and intellectualism about Crawfordsville that’s very nice.”

In Wabash’s library, Shortz spent hours reading magazine articles about puzzle history. He’s the only person known to have earned a college degree in enigmatology, or the science of puzzles, which he studied at Indiana University. 

“I just keep thinking he would have done so well here,” Wabash theater department chair Jim Cherry joked as he introduced Shortz.

Shortz was in charge of a games and puzzle magazine when the 77-year-old editor of the Times crossword died in 1993. Then in his early 40s, Shortz was seen as a bridge between younger and older readers. The clues become more innovative, such as, “It might turn into a different story.” (Answer: spiral staircase). 

From his home office, Shortz reviews more than a hundred submissions a week, searching for lively themes and vocabulary. There cannot be any unchecked squares, and no-two letter words are allowed in American crosswords.

After a puzzle is crafted, a team of four test solvers work the clues. The grid is checked a half-dozen more times before it’s published. The feature appears in hundreds of newspapers nationwide, including the Journal Review.

Shortz also has a longtime following on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” and released numerous puzzle books.

Newspaper crosswords first came out before World War I. Editors hated the error-prone clues, but the puzzles were a hit with readers. Fledgling book publishers Richard Simon and Max Schuster topped the bestselling charts with their crossword volumes. Railroad companies installed unabridged dictionaries for the convenience of passengers.

“It was a craze like hula hoops, Rubik’s Cubes, pet rocks,” Shortz said.

But the Times refused to join the bandwagon. In 1924, the editorial page blasted the puzzles as a “primitive sort of mental exercise” and a “sinful waste of time,” predicting their quick demise. 

Finally in 1942, seeking to provide readers with a relaxing pastime during the second world war, the first puzzle appeared. Daily puzzles followed nearly a decade later. Shortz is the paper’s fourth crossword puzzle editor.

A few years after Shortz took the reins, a young Manhattan lawyer wanted to use the puzzle to propose to his girlfriend, an avid fan of the game.

Shortz gave a theme to one of his constructors: The long answers were “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift’s 18th century satirical poem, 1960s chart-topper “This Diamond Ring,” and “Will You Marry Me,” a 1990s hit from Paula Abdul. The couple’s first names, Bill and Emily, were also worked into the puzzle.

At brunch on the special day, Bill pretended to scan the front page as Emily turned straight to the crossword.

“So Emily is solving along and … she goes, ‘Oh, look, your name is in the puzzle,’” Shortz said, recalling Bill’s story about the proposal. “And a little later, she says, ‘Oh, my name is in the puzzle.’”

“She sees a marriage proposal theme, both of their names are in the puzzle, and yet how could this puzzle be for her because it’s the puzzle everyone is getting that day. She’s afraid to say anything in case it’s all a coincidence,” Shortz continued, filling the theater with laughter. “And she’s almost done, she looks at him and just says, ‘This puzzle is a puzzle.’ And he asks, ‘Will you marry me?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’”

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