A man in Philadelphia had gotten in touch with Merl, since Merl's Sunday puzzle runs in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The man's wife CLARA (1-Across) is a big fan of crosswords and she has been battling a tough cancer. The man hoped that a newspaper might run a puzzle with a theme devoted to Clara. That, Merl explained, was not possible—but he came up with the idea of seeding a themed puzzle with all sorts of stealth answers that would mean something to Clara but nothing to the rest of us.
The Philadelphia Inquirer also runs the L.A. Times daily crossword, so Merl and editor Rich Norris put the plan into motion.
Clara's dog CHOCO is there, as well as her husband's name, her favorite baseball player, her maiden name—about 15 answers in all. So the fill had to work with Merl's five theme answers and the other 15 entries planted around the grid, thus compromising the remaining fill.
Clara did the crossword in the hospital today, thinking all those answers with personal meaning were mere coincidences until she came upon CHOCO and said, "Wait a minute. What's going on here?" The family burst into laughter, and the joyous experience was the best Christmas present they'd ever had.
I'm a firm believer in crosswords having the best quality fill and offering the solver an entertaining time. This one time, the bulk of the entertainment was directed at a minuscule part of the solving audience, not at the rest of us. But hey, the other 364 puzzles this year are for all of us. This one puzzle gave Clara's husband a chance to do something really memorable and joyous for her, and I'm glad it worked out.
Thanks to Merl Reagle for sharing the story, and thanks to Rich and Merl for doing a good deed. The rest of us? We still had a decent crossword to solve, and we got to be witnesses to a touching tale.