Marie Haley and Merl Reagle were together for 35 years, thick as thieves and bound by love, and laughter, and mutual appreciation for one another’s prodigious talents. They had adventures. They were soul mates, sure, and they were life partners.
“Why marry, we thought,” Haley remembers. “That could just cause a problem. We love each other, we’re always together. It’s really ‘Till death do us part.’ That’s what’s gonna happen, man.”
They moved to Tampa in 1993, made a life (and a successful business) there until Reagle died suddenly in 2015, from acute pancreatitis. He was 65.
He was famous. For three decades, Reagle constructed weekly crossword puzzles that were syndicated in more than 50 Sunday newspapers. He was a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Washington Post. More than 20 books of his idiosyncratic puzzles are still in print today.
Reagle turned the crossword puzzle into something vivacious and fun. Packed with puns and humorous wordplay, and with frustrating but ultimately rewarding tangents. “His puzzles were genuinely funnier than anybody else’s,” said his longtime friend, Times crossword editor Will Schortz. Reagle’s puzzles, he said, “were not just clever, they would make you laugh.”
After Schortz and Reagle were featured in the 2006 documentary Wordplay, they were invited to appear as themselves on an episode of The Simpsons.
Yep, that famous.
Seven years after she lost him, Haley will host a tribute to the iconic puzzlemaker June 8 at Banquet Masters in Clearwater. The occasion is Word Play, a fundraising gala for the organization Voices of Hope For Aphasia (VOH), the St. Pete-based nonprofit that offers rehabilitative programs for those living with aphasia, which is a language disorder most often caused by stroke, tumor or traumatic brain injury.
Since words and language are at the heart of what VOH does, it seemed natural to involve the work of Merl Reagle, for whom words – and wordplay – were integral.
In addition to the tribute to her late life partner, Haley will distribute a one-of-a-kind crossword puzzle, created for the occasion by a prize-winning Atlanta puzzlemaker, in the spirit of Reagle’s own brain-busting, word-twisting works.
With their three children in tow, Casimir and Josephine Lesiak left Scranton, Pennsylvania in the late 1940s for far-off Tampa, Florida. Daughter Marie was 7 years old.
The Lesiaks, of Polish descent, purchased two-thirds of an acre on Hillsborough Avenue, at Armenia, and built a sundries store on the corner, which they called Pickford’s. The family lived in a small house at the rear of the property.
Her parents were hard workers, Haley remembers, and never “made” their kids work in the store or at its busy lunch counter. Cas and Jo insisted that education came first; Haley remembers doing years of homework hunched over at a corner table.
Baseball great Tony LaRussa, a Tampa native, sometimes helped his father deliver milk. He was a frequent visitor, as was – in the late 1960s – comedian (and future watermelon-smasher) Leo Gallagher.
A budding writer, Marie was editor of the student newspaper at Chamberlain High, but by the time she enrolled at the University of South Florida, she’d become interested in science. She received a Masters in physiology, specializing in zoology, from USF, then took a teaching job at Florida A&M in Tallahassee.
She’d married a guy named Stephen Haley, and while she was teaching he worked on his Ph.D. at Florida State University.
Steve’s post-doctorate work sent him to Germany for a year, which his wife spent studying bees at the Munich Zoological Institute. “I had an amazing life, man,” she marvels.
The early 1970s were times of change – and turmoil. “I took a job teaching high school in Orlando, which I hated,” Haley says. “Because it was like being a warden. It was just horrible. I wanted to quit at Halloween.”
There followed an amicable divorce – “we signed the papers at a table in Pickford’s” – and another hard left for Marie Haley. For the next decade, she paired her scientific expertise and her gift for gab as a pharmaceutical diagnostic rep, selling hospital and laboratory equipment around the country.
She wouldn’t trade the experience – well, most of it – for the world. “I heard Nobel Prize people lecturing,” she recalls. “I actually met Jonas Salk.”
In time, she grew weary of the traveling, of living out of a suitcase. “I was living in Santa Monica, California,” Haley says. “And I’d wake up in Boston, or Miami. I’d wake up in Kentucky. It was wonderful, it was exciting, but 10 years was really it.”
And then she met Merl Reagle.
The scene: A small delicatessen and breakfast counter in Santa Monica. It’s 6 a.m. on a nondescript day in 1982. “He was at the counter talking to a waitress about a movie I had just seen. And I had never heard a mind like that before. As soon as the waitress went to deliver some food, I immediately engaged him in conversation.” She laughs at the memory of her impudence: “Salesperson first, salesperson last, and very curious.”
She learned, among many other things, that he read the dictionary, like a book, regularly. That he had a memory like a steel trap. That he was a master of the anagram, a word formed by rearranging the letters of a different word. He could do it on sight.
She was impressed by his bottomless well of knowledge. “I used to say he was Google before there was Google.” She learned that he crafted his first crossword puzzle at the age of 6, and made his first sale – to the New York Times, no less – when he was 16.
The English language, he said, was the best toy a boy ever had. “He was really the Mozart of crosswords.”
When they met, Haley was still six months away from exiting her traveling saleswoman gig. She and Reagle bonded instantly, but for the first two years were simply friends.
Lightbulb moment. “I could see this man could talk. And he was poor. I said ‘Hey Merl, I got a deal for you. I have an unlimited expense account to take doctors out for dinners; but I get kinda tired in the evening … I’d really like you to come along and entertain them.’ And he was hot to do that. He thought that was the greatest.
“And it was the greatest. He would tell jokes, he would talk about movies. We were a dog and pony show.”
They never properly checked, but Haley guesses her partner had a genius-level IQ. Reagle was a prolific playwright and music composer, in addition to his innovative puzzle work.
She loved to watch him create crosswords out of thin air. At first, she says, “I was just stupefied. I was like ‘Do people actually make those?’ I thought computers, or committees made them. We’d go to dinner a lot – even when I wasn’t entertaining clients – and he’d take out a piece of grid paper and make one for me. I’d sit there and watch him filling in the words.”
By 1993, the couple’s book and syndication business was bringing in enough money for them to get out of California. The plan was to buy a home in suburban Portland, Oregon.
“But I’d grown concerned about my mom when I came to Tampa to visit, and when I talked to her on the telephone,” Haley explains. “I could tell there was something seriously wrong. I came to Tampa to sort things out, get her to a doctor. And during that time, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack.
“And my mother had Alzheimer’s.”
She moved into the old family home to care for her mother; meanwhile, Pickford’s was falling apart. She had an elderly uncle who also needed looking after, and a strong desire to restore Pickford’s to its former glory. “They had worked so hard, and it was just going to be gone,” Haley remembered thinking; she was determined not to let that happen.
“I told Merl, Portland’s off. I wasn’t coming back – and Merl, if he wanted to be with me, he was going to have to come to Tampa. And that’s what he did.”
Josephine Lasiak died in 1995.
Not long afterwards, Reagle developed an awareness-building campaign for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. He created the National Brain Game Challenge, an online contest featuring a Sunday crossword with an imbedded secret message.
They could, they reasoned, take orders and sell books from Tampa – they arranged a deal with a Sarasota-based distributor. And it didn’t really matter where Reagle kept his office – he could create puzzles, for anyone, from anywhere.
The couple became familiar faces in the community. Still nationally syndicated, Reagle began to submit puzzles to Creative Loafing Tampa.
In 2006, director Patrick Creadon’s documentary Wordplay chronicled the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the Wimbledon of puzzling. It was one of the year’s best-reviewed documentaries – with Reagle’s razor-sharp wit and puzzle-making prowess on full display – and his national celebrity increased tenfold. The Simpsons came calling in 2008.
The scene: The Carrollwood home of Merl Reagle and Marie Haley, Thursday morning, Aug. 20, 2015.
“I went to take our books to the post office. I came back, he was on the floor, right next to the bed, and he was sweating bullets. He said ‘I’m in the most awful pain, Marie.’”
She drove him to Memorial Hospital, where he’d undergone successful cancer surgery a few years previous.
He died three days later, on Aug. 22. “I stopped believing in anything,” Haley says.
Merl Reagle was eulogized in newspapers across the country; predicably, book orders skyrocketed. A friend took care of the computer work, the packing and the shipping, according to Haley, “Because I was a total basket case.”
The passage of time, she says, has helped with the pain of his loss. She owns five-sixths of the renovated Pickford’s, where operations were taken over by restauranteur David Hansen in 2020. “When he came along, it just breathed life into the place … and into me.”
Each year, she travels to Stamford, Connecticut for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. She presents the Merl Reagle MEmoRiaL Award “for lifetime achievement in crossword construction.” It’s a snow globe with a goofily grinning Merl inside.
Haley is looking forward to the Voices of Hope For Aphasia gala. “It seemed like a real opportunity to do some good. I’ve gone to a lot of their meetings. I saw people with Aphasia; I saw how hard it is.”
She sees this as, potentially, the first in a series. “If they really like it, this will be an ongoing event, with this kind of idea. And we’ll do the next one, and then the next one. I think that’s what’s gonna happen.”
Find information on the VOH Word Play gala (June 8) here.