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March 25, 2010


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Commissioner’s job is no ‘puzzle’ for Doug Heller

When I contacted Doug Heller of Flourtown to request an interview, he said, “Sure, sounds like fun. Come on over, I’ll put on a pot of coffee.”

As he was giving me precise directions, culminating with “It’s the seventh house on the right, with a Betsy Ross flag,” I thought the directions were exactly what I would expect from a guy who creates crossword puzzles — enthusiastic and detail-oriented.

Of course, as I drove up his street, I immediately lost count of how many houses I had passed, so I just stopped at the first one that had a flag, which turned out to be the wrong house. Then I noticed that just about every house in the area had a flag (I was in the ‘burbs, after all), so I tried to find a flag with a picture of Betsy Ross on it. Failing that, I wandered the street like a refugee, looking for house numbers.

I heard, “Jim, over here!” and saw Doug coming around the side of a beautiful Victorian home. “I was out back with the chickens,” he said. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

I had never interviewed a cruciverbalist (crossword constructor) before, but I quickly became aware that he could read my hastily scribbled notes (upside down!) as I was writing. “No, that’s a ‘u’ on the end of sudoku,” he said. “This guy does not miss a trick,” I thought, as I proceeded with newfound attention to my spelling.

Doug, who is 55, was born in Manhattan. His dad taught computer science at NYU. Doug learned to program at 11 years old. He says his love has always been for the content of computers, though, not the process.

He attended the University of Rochester, where he majored in history and music. When Doug discovered that Steven Sondheim, whose work he admired, was a crossword constructor, he began doing it himself, eventually writing a puzzle a day for the university’s Daily Times.

He learned typesetting in the process, and wound up practicing that trade in Weston, Connecticut, after college. While there, he saw a small notice in a local paper about a crossword club forming. He joined the small club, which was the creation of crossword-icon-to-be Will Shortz, and they have been friends ever since.

A few short words about Will Shortz. He is the only person known to hold a college degree in enigmatology — the study of puzzles. He is presently the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times and the puzzle master on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

Doug took over Will’s job writing crosswords for Penny Press when Shortz left for greener pastures, and Doug spent the next 20 years editing and generating puzzles for a living.

Among Doug’s many interesting projects in the industry was a job for Winston Churchill’s daughter (yes, THAT Winston Churchill) in which he wrote poetic clues to be broadcast on radio for a treasure hunt through the five boroughs of Manhattan. “Yeah, imagine, little old puzzle-maker me, sitting in the same room with Churchill’s daughter,” he said. “It was quite exciting.” Doug also developed the puzzle-generating computer software that is used by the industry today.

Nowadays, an entire puzzle grid can be generated, complete with a theme, by computer, although some constructors (including Merle Reagle, whose puzzles appear in the Sunday Inquirer) still do it by hand. The crossword editing process involves creating and/or adjusting the clues to a desired degree of difficulty. Generally, modern crosswords aspire to use familiar words in the grid with the difficulty level determined by the clues. Older puzzles tended to use harder vocabulary, with everything clued in a straightforward manner.

For example, the answer “Paris” might be clued as “Capital of France” or “Eiffel Tower’s home” on a Monday, “Helen’s abductor” on Wednesday, “Where to get plastered?” or “Romeo’s rival” on a Thursday, and perhaps “Achilles’ killer” or “Lutetia’s modern name” on a Saturday. Same word made harder by the clueing.

As you may know, the New York Times crossword starts with the easiest puzzle on Monday, and Saturday is the hardest. The Sunday puzzle is the largest, but is about a Thursday level of difficulty, generally.

According to Doug, the only rules in constructing an American-style crossword puzzle is that all the white squares must be connected, and every letter must be a part of two words. Clues are generally simple definitions or references.

There is another type of crossword puzzle, called “cryptic” or “British,” in which each clue comprises two parts: a definition or reference, and some form of wordplay. Either may come first. These combine to form one more or less coherent sounding sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with the answer.

Doug gave me an example of a “cryptic” clue: “Outlaw leader managing money.” In this case, you replace words with synonyms to solve the clue:

Outlaw = ban (as a verb). Leader = king. Managing money = ban + king. ANSWER: Banking. Confused? Me too.

When the Internet took off in 1993, Doug became fascinated by it and immediately began working as a web designer. His typesetting skills helped him with his designing. His work includes a walking-tour Philadelphia Guide, a visual animated puzzle for Comcast, and the website ushistory.org, which is based in Philadelphia.

“Some people are surprised that crosswords continue to be popular with the new ‘internet’ generation,” he said, “but I think crosswords and Twitter are of a kind. Every puzzle is a ‘tweet’ that you solve and move on — all connected to a larger whole. A metaphor for our modern digital lives.”

Doug presently has no full-time crossword job, but he helps Will Shortz run the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, now held in Brooklyn, New York. The tournament has become extremely popular since the success of the documentary “Wordplay” in 2006. The movie features some famous crossword enthusiasts, including Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart and The Indigo Girls. Doug is in the movie too, (“I’m the guy at the clock.”)

And of course, Doug still solves crosswords on a regular basis. He says he does some online but prefers paper because you can see the grid and the clues at the same time. Although he sees the web as the future of big newspapers, he thinks neighborhood newspapers are still important because “You can’t find that news anywhere else,” and as a commissioner for Springfield Township, he finds that valuable.

Doug is in his third year as a commissioner. He ran for the office because “There were issues I wanted to address, including making Bethlehem Pike more pedestrian-friendly, having more destinations and historic preservation.” He enjoys being a commissioner, but laments the environment of extreme partisanship so prevalent in politics today. Doug insists it’s counterproductive for politicians to have to waste so much time defending themselves against outrageous personal attacks.

I know what you’re thinking: “All very interesting, but what about the chickens?” Okay, here’s the scoop. When their dog passed away a few years ago, Doug’s wife Nancy wanted to get another dog, but Doug, who works at home, didn’t want the distractions associated with having a dog. His neighbors had chickens, and he thought they seemed like rather low-maintenance pets, so he tried it himself, and has been happy with the results. “You just let them out of the coop in the morning, collect the eggs, then round them up, count them and put them back in at night.”

There have been some minor adventures, like having to climb trees to pull out roosting chicks, but Doug really seems to enjoy living with chickens as pets. He was quick to point out that he and Nancy do not eat them, but they do eat the eggs. They even have detailed egg-production charts. “Our hens that don’t produce — we love them for other reasons.”

I couldn’t leave without spending some quality time with the chicks (all hens, no roosters), and I can tell you, they are delightful, fascinating creatures. It was a beautiful spring day, and as Doug walked me to my car, a police patrol cruised by. “There’s my boys,” he said, with a wide grin.

Clearly, Doug is a guy who loves life in all its various forms and permutations. He’s smart, personable and caring. It makes me think that maybe all politicians should henceforth be cruciverbalists. They are a breed apart.

 



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