The College Magazine - Winter 2001
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Nice work if you can get it:
One of the world’s best people* plies his
unusual trade during a visit to his alma mater

by Leora Baude

*According to an Esquire magazine list in 1997

      Being the mother of Will Shortz must feel a bit like being the mother of Stuart Little upon discovering that she has given birth to a mouse: He is more than ordinarily charming and delightful, but how on earth did it happen?

      Shortz, the fourth (and youngest) crossword editor for the only daily crossword puzzle fit to print, the New York Times’s, seems to have sprung into the professional world full-grown from out of his own imagination. He certainly wasn’t following anybody’s footsteps into the family business. The circumstances of his upbringing, to be sure, were not exactly run-of-the-mill. He was raised on an Arabian horse farm outside Crawfordsville, Ind. But what can Wilma Shortz have thought when her son became the world’s first and only accredited enigmatologist?

      Shortz is a kind-looking man, with a sunny expression and a flourishing mustache. His appearance seems to match his voice, which is familiar to many from his gig as puzzlemaster on National Public Radio’s "Sunday Edition." He came to IUB last April as a visiting Class of 1942 Wells Professor. Speaking to a large and enthusiastic audience in Whittenberger Auditorium (an audience that included his mother, who had never before heard him speak publicly), Shortz opened his talk by outlining the path that brought him to his current position.

      Apparently born loving puzzles, he sold his first, to a national Sunday school magazine, at the age of 14. At 16, he sold a puzzle to Dell. His parents were already convinced he would starve in the puzzle-writer’s equivalent of a garret. In 1970, he enrolled at IU, initially (and sensibly) as an economics major. Then he learned about the Individualized Major Program. With the help of a handful of open-minded professors —including Professor Smith Higgins, who was present for Shortz’s talk — Shortz put together a course of study that resulted in a degree in enigmatology. He devised courses on mathematical puzzles, logic puzzles, puzzle magazines, and the psychology of solving puzzles, and wrote a thesis on the history of puzzles in America before 1860. After graduating, as a sop to the demands of practicality, Shortz attended law school at the University of Virginia. Before he could take the bar exam, however, he was offered the editorship of Games magazine, and he’s never looked back.

      In 1993, after the death of the former Latin teacher and New York Times puzzle editor, Eugene T. Maleska, whose name, in crossword-solving circles, is seven letters for arcane, the paper hired Shortz. At the Times, Shortz told his audience at IU, he has tried to freshen up the puzzle with colorful language, original themes, and a minimum of "crosswordese," As examples of this last, he cited clues such as "a Polynesian demon," "mine entrance" and "Anglo-Saxon slave"; the auditorium evidently held more than a few unrepentant Maleska-ites, who called out the answers, respectively "atua," "adit," and "esne." Shortz described his favorite crossword to date, composed by Jeremiah Ferrell, an Indianapolis resident who was in the audience. The puzzle appeared on election day in 1996; its central clue was "Tomorrow’s headline." The answer, as Shortz ended up having to explain to a number of irate callers, could be either "Clinton elected" or "Bob Dole elected." Each of the crossing clues had two possible correct solutions. Another favorite puzzle had theme clues in which the letters "star"’ were replaced by the star symbol, as in *tled. The stars in the puzzle appeared in the shape of its center answer, the Big Dipper. Hearing this, the audience in Whittenberger sighed with pleasure. A sentimental lot, they also liked hearing about the young man who asked Shortz to construct a crossword puzzle that would include a marriage proposal. They also liked hearing about Shortz’s rehabilitation of the word bra, previously hidden from view by pure-minded puzzle editors. That’s bra, as in "bosom companion," or "women’s wear daily." "My view," explained Shortz, in justification of this innovation, "is that a brassiere is part of life."

      The evening ended with a competition in which one half of the audience was pitted against the other for several rounds of word games. One set of questions involved filling in a blank with the name of an animal to complete a sentence in a "punny" way; for example, "Is it for beef or mutton you hanker, or is it for ---------- ?" (Answer: porcupine). Another game asked for a two-word palindromic answer: "What do you call an earnest soprano?" An avid diva.

      As the audience’s initial shyness wore off, and the level of competitiveness rose in the room, the puzzles grew increasingly silly. "Repeating syllables," said Shortz. "What do you use to walk the dog with in Japan?" "A Tokyo yo-yo," barked out three competitors at once. "And what do you call a Hawaiian doozy?" "A Honolulu lulu!"

      By the time everyone poured out into the soft evening air, there wasn’t a serious face in sight.

      It’s still a bit of a puzzle quite how Will Shortz happened, but we’re awfully glad he did.

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