'Wuzzles' turn 25, Cedar Rapids creator still going strong

Tom Ecker, of Cedar Rapids pulls out one of the hard copies of his
Tom Ecker, of Cedar Rapids pulls out one of the hard copies of his "Wuzzles," a word puzzle that Ecker came up with in 1982, at his home at 3503 River Ridge Ct. NE in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, July 15, 2010. Ecker is celebrating the 25th anniversary of syndication with Wuzzles, which appears in 50 different newspapers including the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Within those 25 years he has developed around 9,000 different word puzzles. He also creates the Crypto-Quotes that run six days a week in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

Never give up.

Tom Ecker lived by that mantra for 15 years as he tried unsuccessfully to sell his word puzzles — or Wuzzles.

Now, as he marks the 25th anniversary of Wuzzles’ syndication, he sometimes is still amazed at their success.

“It was a surprise and shock to be accepted into syndication,” he says.

Ecker, 75, came up with the idea for Wuzzles in 1970 at the beginning of his second year as athletic director of the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

His secretary, Vicky McAllister, challenged him to solve a series of word puzzles which were making the rounds among the faculty. Instantly hooked, Ecker came up with his own form of the puzzle, or rebus, which has a missing concept such as in, on, over, under, before, after or between.

After he created about 200 puzzles (initially named Wurdles, for word hurdles), Ecker sent samples to book publishers and newspaper syndicates. He waited for the phone to ring. But it didn’t.

In 1982 he had more than 3,500 puzzles (by then named Wuzzles, for word puzzles) in his collection. After 12 years of rejection, he marketed Wuzzles one last time by pitching the idea in a new format to The Gazette.

John Robertson, The Gazette’s managing editor at the time, agreed to run Wuzzles for two weeks to gauge the public’s interest.

The day after the two-week test period ended, the public’s interest was evident as The Gazette’s phone lines were tied up with readers demanding Wuzzles’ return.

The next day Wuzzles returned to The Gazette, this time indefinitely and with Ecker compensated.

At first readers didn’t know the puzzle was created by a Cedar Rapids man. Ecker used the pseudonym Tom Underwood — a Wuzzle itself — to conceal his identity from his boss, the Cedar Rapids superintendent, who didn’t approve of moonlighting.

His answering machine once had the message, “Tom isn’t here. The other Tom isn’t here either.”

Wuzzles was finally picked up in 1985 by North America Syndicate, a company which had previously rejected it twice.

“It’s hard to get anything syndicated,” Ecker says.

Wuzzles now appears in 50 newspapers throughout the world through King Features, which bought out the North America Syndicate. His biggest clients include newspapers in Denver, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

His collection of Wuzzles has grown to more than 19,000. And he still has every hard copy filed in folders at his northeast Cedar Rapids home.

In the past 25 years, technology has drastically changed newspaper production. But that doesn’t faze Ecker, who still uses an exacto knife, waxing machine and cutouts of graphics from discontinued clip-art books.

“I wouldn’t have a clue if I did it on the computer,” he says.

That’s what Diana Pesek, now archive curator at SourceMedia Group, has been doing since 1982.

She started out designing Wuzzles with simple computer software. Now she uses master documents she created with Adobe Illustrator.

She also lays out Crypto-Quote, another popular puzzle Ecker created which is published exclusively in The Gazette.

“I’ve gotten really good at typing jibberish,” Pesek says.

Ecker gives Pesek a stack of puzzles about twice a year.

He submits them so far in advance he sometimes can’t figure them out when they come out in The Gazette.

“I’m a problem creator, not a solver,” he says. “It takes a certain kind of mind.”

To keep his creative mind busy, he has also published 19 books, mostly about sports, especially track and the Olympics (he was a coach for the Swedish track team in the 1968 Olympics). He is currently working on his life story, which includes writing a published song when he was in eighth grade, developing a police officer’s agility test, inventing the somersault long jump and traveling all over the world.

He plans to continue creating puzzles, although he wondered about Wuzzles’ future as the newspaper industry continues to evolve.

“I called my man in New York and he said the last thing to go would be the puzzles,” he says.

Gazette Editor Lyle Muller echoes that sentiment.“People love these things, it’s part of their day,” he says. “If we mess with those puzzles, we would get the dickens.”

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