University of Rochester

Alumni Gazette

Puzzle Master

crossword puzzle

Nancy Salomon ’68 may have more readers and than any other Rochester graduate who ever lived.

An English major from Buffalo whose favorite course was biology, Salomon is a frequent contributor of crosswords to the New York Times and other publications.

“She comes up with fresh ideas for themes and packs her grids with lively vocabulary, especially the long answers,” says Will Shortz, the Times crossword editor. “And Nancy is an excellent clue writer.”

But that wasn’t always the case. As a student, Salomon didn’t have a clue about crosswords.

“I can’t remember any general interest in word games,” says the former Campus Times copy editor. “I was a big solver of cryptic variety puzzles and acrostics, but I didn’t have any fellow enthusiasts among my friends. Ironically, I never started solving crosswords regularly until I started making them.”

In the early 1990s, Salomon, a systems programmer sidelined by herniated discs, took a course by mail to learn how to create daily crossword puzzles.

Her homework was to produce a puzzle, and Stanley Newman, the teacher and editor, purchased her puzzle for publication.

After that, Salomon started submitting other puzzles to various publications, focusing on making the 21-square-by-21-square crosswords that often appear in Sunday papers. The puzzles are harder to make than the 15-by-15 puzzles that are offered daily.

“I did every thing backwards,” Salomon says.

And it took some time before she produced compelling crosswords. Salomon remembers Shortz describing one of her early puzzles as looking like “it had been filled out by a computer.”

“Of course that stung,” Salomon says, “but it was the best thing he could have done.”

The experience of creating puzzles used to be “solitary,” says Salomon, but the Internet and e-mail have created a cyber community of crossworders. They encourage each other, they answer cries for help, and sometimes they do puzzles together.

Within the crossword community, Salomon is known as a gifted coach, someone willing to assist new constructors, including Kyle Mahowald of Florida, who became the youngest person to create a puzzle for the Sunday Times in 2004, when he was 17.

Now a student at Harvard University, Mahowald calls Salomon one of the “best teachers” he’s ever had.

“She always responds with upbeat and positive feedback, even when the crux of the message is, ‘This is no good. Start over,’” Mahowald says. “She gets no money, no accolades, nothing tangible out of helping so many people. It’s just something she does out of kindness.”

Salomon says that helping constructors such as Mahowald is its own reward.

It has connected her with people she may never meet in person, but people she has come to know and like through the world of interlocking words.

“It’s opened up a whole new world for me,” says Salomon of her crosswording. “It’s given a direction and purpose to my life. It’s given me a wide circle of friends.”

—Jim Memmott

Jim Memmott, a senior editor at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of English.