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Barry Tunick, 72; clue writer for Times crosswords

October 17, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Barry Tunick, a retired high school English teacher who appreciated alliteration and reveled in puns and used them in co-creating the crossword puzzle that has run Sundays in the Los Angeles Times since 1980, has died. He was 72.

Tunick died Saturday at his Culver City home after a short battle with leukemia, his family said.

"He was one of the first to bring a witty, contemporary sense of humor to puzzle clues. He was very much a pioneer in his own way," said Stanley Newman, Newsday's puzzle editor and former publisher of Random House's puzzle division, which has printed more than 25 books of crosswords by Tunick and his writing partner, Sylvia Bursztyn.

Tunick continued writing crosswords until about a week ago, completing enough to last until February. Bursztyn will continue the "Puzzler," which appears in the Calendar section, on her own.

Together, they had crafted more than 1,400 puzzles after Art Seidenbaum, then book editor of The Times, asked Tunick to create a Sunday crossword for the newspaper. Tunick turned to the National Puzzlers' League for help and found Bursztyn, a legal secretary.

"I don't know how many other partnerships last 28 years," Bursztyn told The Times on Tuesday. "Barry was without guile. He was plain and straightforward with people, and he expected the same."

The collaborators rarely met, yet lived only 40 miles apart, choosing instead to complete their work through phone calls and, increasingly, e-mail.

"I'm words and grids, while he wrote the clues for the words," Bursztyn said, explaining their division of labor.

The reception to their first collaboration published in The Times in April 1980 was chilly at best: 3,000 angry puzzlers wrote or called to complain.

The puzzle makers had constructed a British-style crossword that featured challenging cryptic clues. For instance, the answer to "possibly sharp instruments" was "harps," an anagram of "sharp" meaning "instruments."

They quickly switched to a more straightforward approach and became known for their themed puzzles, pointed clues and humor.

One of their favorite puzzles suggested titles for movie prequels; the answer to "prequel to Tom Cruise-Dustin Hoffman movie" ("Rain Man") was "Partly Cloudy Kid." For "Von Trapp family dog?" the answer was "Hound of Music."

Tunick also had a penchant for acrostics, a word puzzle that typically consists of two parts. For several years in the 1980s, he constructed the double-crostic puzzle for Saturday Review magazine.

With Bursztyn, Tunick also wrote the 1998 book "Crossword Crosstalk" about their adventures in wordplay.

He was born Jan. 4, 1935, in Queens, N.Y., and grew up watching his father do the New York Herald Tribune crosswords. When he was about 9, Tunick started tackling them himself.

When his family moved to Los Angeles in 1951, his father opened a hardware store.

At UCLA, Tunick earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1956. Two years later, he joined the Army Reserve and served as the company typist.

While working as a management analyst in the late 1950s for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C., he met his future wife, Trudi, and they married in 1959.

For the next two years, the couple lived in Lagos, Nigeria, while he administered foreign aid funds for what is now the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Back home, Tunick earned a master's in education from USC in 1963. He taught English for 18 years at Crenshaw High School and finished his teaching career at Palisades High before retiring in 1993.

In "The Crossword Obsession" (2002), Tunick said one reason he enjoyed the hobby that became his full-time profession was "the looks I get when I tell people what I do."

In addition to his wife, Trudi, Tunick is survived by daughters Erika Tunick and Sylvie Hanks; son Danny Tunick; sister Carol Salin; and a granddaughter.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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