Wednesday, July 22, 1998, Cheshire, Connecticut -
Would somebody call up Ann Fennelly and tell her that the Buckeye state is O-h-i-o and not I-o-w-a?
Fennelly knows when she makes a mistake in her weekly crossword puzzle, because the telephone rings. First, her readers call, then the editor calls, because people have been calling the newspaper over and over...
Then she will go to her Methodist church, where she is an organist, and her friends there will give her a ribbing. So, I guess there's no need to call her on this one.
Fennelly is a friendly, joyful, grandmother of nine, but she can rough-up the best of us, and she does, each week, with a challenging crossword puzzle in her hometown newspaper, a western Connecticut weekly called the Cheshire Herald. She began working at the Herald as a writer in 1971, where her career got a big start, covering the W-a-t-e-r-g-a-t-e hearings in Washington.
She slowed down a little after that, and has been creating puzzles for over twenty years. If she misses a week, it's a big event. One year, the advertising manager had a full load of ads for the upcoming Thanksgiving issue, so he chose to omit the crossword puzzle that week. Well, the first and last person he heard from about this grave error was his own mother, an ardent puzzler who spent half the morning looking for the crosswords and the other half reading him the r-i-o-t-a-c-t.
"People that work crossword puzzles are a special breed," says Fennelly, "and they have strict habits." Having such a faithful audience keeps her busy, staying on top of new words and current events. She creates special puzzles for C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s and other holidays and is finding it increasingly difficult to have fresh clues every year. People have been solving her puzzles for so long, she's afraid they'll think she is just reprinting ones from years ago.
How does she do it? She starts by choosing a grid, which is basically a blank crossword puzzle. Then she selects some large words or phrases, usually about fifteen letters long, that have a similar theme, such as old movies or songs, or sayings.
Next is the hard part, as she fills out the rest of the grid. Each word has to serve as letters for its cross-words. Sometimes, she will strive to use every letter in the alphabet. She can not use the same word twice and she can not m-i-s-s-p-e-l-l anything. Good thing she majored in English at Illinois Wesleyan University.
We are talking about a woman who solves crossword puzzles in i-n-k, here.
Only after she has the words filled in, will she develop the clues. "That's the fun part," she says. "It's very educational for me." Fennelly keeps a resource library of dictionaries, movie books, music fake books and other references. It usually takes her from five to eight hours to create a puzzle.
She also gathers clues from family members, such as her son Joe, who is now hiking the Appalachian Trail for the third time, and gives her good a-d-v-e-n-t-u-r-e words. Her husband uses a computer and keeps her versed in high-tech.
As if creating a puzzle, writing a column and playing a church organ each week weren't enough, Fennelly loves to keep her hometown clean. On any given day, you may see her on the roadsides of Cheshire, picking up g-a-r-b-a-g-e, something she has done for decades.
Before I leave, I ask Ann Fennelly for ten letters to sum up her experience in the newspaper business, and she tells me; "Mark, it's the most s-u-c-c-e-s-s-f-u-l thing I've ever done."