Merl Reagle, Tampa’s own prince of the crossword puzzle, beloved friend of the Oxford Exchange, and our favorite Florida wit, passed away on Saturday, August 22 at the age of 65, after a brief illness. Merl was one of the first people to come through our doors the day the Oxford Exchange opened three years ago this September, welcoming us with his signature openness, humor, and enthusiasm. In fact, Merl and his wife, Marie Haley, were the first people we met, when we opened. As Allison Adams, the Oxford Exchange’s Director, remembers it, they talked about a brass octopus bookend. She was so excited because the whole idea behind the Oxford Exchange was to start a conversation, and here it was, already working in the first five minutes.
I remember standing in the bookstore, a deer in the headlights who was hoping nothing would blow up, when Allison came running down the hallway from the Shop, past Buddy Brew, and into the bookstore. Allison had Merl and Marie, with her. “Y’all have to meet!” said Allison, before introducing us. “He’s amazing!” We met, making Merl the first person I met at the Oxford Exchange too. Allison was right. He was amazing. His verbal genius left me speechless.
Within the span of one conversation, Merl became “our Merl.” We had to have him. I don’t remember a single meeting at which we didn’t bring up his name and wonder what else we might ask him to do. But of course, we never had to ask anything, because Merl offered to give us his lexical best in any way he could. On the spot he took up the anagrammatic possibilities of the x’s and o’s in the name Oxford Exchange. He often talked about creating a puzzle just for us around all those x’s and o’s. Later, just as we’d hoped he would, Merl came to the OE and led a seminar in crosswords, acrostics, and other mesmerizing tricks, teaching us how to play and win at word games.
On so many afternoons, Merl and Marie would come by to tell us some news of the world of puzzling, or to show us Merl’s latest book. More often, though, they came simply to be sociable, to hang out with us in the bookstore, and to delight in sharing ideas and, always, words. After all, we at the Oxford Exchange are dedicated to the word, and every day found the glue of human interaction within the pages of the books on our shelves. The books offered a trampoline for the staff to bounce around on with Merl. He knew everything. His knowledge of pop music, especially of the 1960s and 70s, was encyclopedic. He seemed to see and understand the entirety of history and culture. This, it soon became clear, was no sleight of hand, but a rock solid fact. Merl’s mind was born to observe pattern, and then to reveal these magical occurrences to us. Letters, words, and meanings marched to his tune, forming elegant columns and executing deft turns. He transformed grammar into glamour, and wordplay into a moon launch. In his grasp, verbs dazzled like diamonds, and linguistic coincidences lined up like pearls on a string. When one was with Merl, chaos found order, rhyme gained reason, and mystery was shaded a brilliant hue.
Merl showed us yet again how thrilling language can be, how rich in possibilities, if only we would open our eyes to it. The pleasure Merl gave to hundreds of thousands of puzzle-solvers over the span of his nearly forty-year career was to show us a new way to see and a fresh way to think. Famous for clues and answers that favored the frisky over the arcane, Merl made a highly technical skill into an absorbing, rewarding, irreplaceable ritual.
There is so much we will miss about him, and at the top of that lengthy list is his warm, rich, full brass band of a laugh, lighting up the place without a single word.