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Merl Reagle dies; crossword creator for Los Angeles Times was 65

Merl Reagle arrives to the special New York

Merl Reagle arrives to the special New York screening of 'Wordplay' at the IFC Center on June 14, 2006 in New York City. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Brad Barket

TAMPA, Fla. - (TNS) - Crossword puzzle creator Merl Reagle, whose Sunday puzzles for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers were known for their wit, puns and wicked inventiveness, died Saturday in a Tampa, Florida, hospital. He was 65.

Reagle took ill Thursday and was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, said his wife, Marie Haley. He slipped into a coma and did not regain consciousness.

His puzzle for Sunday in the Times, as well as The Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer among the roughly 50 papers that carried his syndicated work, was titled "Things Are People, Too." It's unclear whether he had prepared additional new puzzles, but Haley said it was unlikely because he often worked right up to deadline.

Reagle, who liked to work in coffee shops and other public places where he could try out his puns and other wordplay on people, was one of the best known and most beloved crafters of puzzles in the business.

He was featured in the 2006 documentary on crosswords, "Wordplay," appeared as an animated version of himself in an episode of "The Simpsons" and was once on "Oprah." He was one of the few people in the field who could make a living entirely on the puzzles -- in addition to his weekly offerings, he put out several collections in book form.

Although his crosswords were far from easy, he steered away from the kind of esoteric terms found just about nowhere but crossword puzzles. He cited two examples, "Anoa, which is an ox. Ern, which is a sea eagle," in a 2013 Hartford Courant interview. Reagle favored wit over obscurity.

Reagle, who started constructing crossword puzzles at age 6 and made his first puzzle sale, to The New York Times, at 16, took delight in the work.

"I always felt," he told The Plain Dealer, "the English language was the best toy a boy ever had."

He was born Jan. 5, 1950, in Audubon, New Jersey. His mother was a nurse who moved him and his brother to Tucson, Arizona, when he was 10.

"I was into building things, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs," he said in a 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer interview. "One day I discovered you could link words together."

He attended the University of Arizona, where he was a copy editor for the student newspaper, the Daily Wildcat. In 1979, he began working at puzzles full time.

His focus on humor got plenty of pushback from traditional crossword solvers, at first. "Most people were not used to seeing a puzzle that was funny, not in newspapers," he told The Hartford Courant in 2013. "I was changing the crossword, knowing how fanatical the fans are. Solvers don't expect to laugh out loud when they're puzzle solving."

It's doubtful that the puzzle maker who came up with "Least popular cookbook ever: TO GRILL A MOCKINGBIRD" or "I'm not a bad duck, I'm just MALLARD JUSTED," could have helped himself anyway.

"Language is a playground," he told the Daily Wildcat in 2014, "that never ends."

In addition to his wife, Reagle is survived by his father, Sam; and a brother also named Sam.

© 2015, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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