HOUGHTON, NY (May 19, 2016) - If you have ever visited the Houghton College Library, there is a good chance you’ve run into the friendly and ever-helpful Brad Wilber. Wilber works at Houghton as a reference librarian, but he is also known for his work as the crossword editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the arbiter of the puzzles, accepting, rejecting and editing submissions for each edition. He began working for the Chronicle in April of 2014, but crosswords have been a part of his life since boyhood.
A child of two teachers, Brad was fascinated by books from a very young age. His parents read to him as often as they could, but he was never satisfied. He began reading on his own to get his fill, and whenever he ran into a word he didn’t know, he would ask his parents; over time, he began to self-reference in the dictionary.
“I became fascinated with the dictionary,” said Wilber. “I thought the thing to do would be to transcribe the dictionary and do my own. I would get as far as ‘abdicate’ and then I would, you know, abdicate. Then I would start over at ‘aardvark’ again.”
Wilber recalls that, around age six or seven, his father came home with one Nancy Drew book, one Hardy Boys book and one Tom Swift book. Though he will concede today those books were far from intellectually challenging and literary, he enjoyed the characters’ adventures and bravery. They also taught him trivia about the world that still sticks with him today. He keeps a collection of these beloved books in his library office.
His first real interaction with crossword puzzles was with his grandmother, who would work through a book of puzzles and ask him questions along the way. He began solving on his own in grade school, working on the New York Times crossword puzzles that came with the Sunday paper. They were a little beyond him at first, he admits, but he sought the assistance of his old friend the dictionary to help him through.
The young Wilber also made the acquaintance of his father’s coworker, Roberta Kent. “Every Sunday, I would telephone her, and we would go over it together,” recalled Wilber. “She knew decades-worth of pop culture that I didn’t, so she would know all of the jazz musicians, all of the movies, and so on. She filled in a lot of the gaps of my knowledge and helped teach my brain how to think in the ways that the crossword was asking me to think.”
After high school, Wilber came to Houghton College. He graduated in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing. While he had initially wanted to write professionally, he found through workshops that he didn’t enjoy the isolation of being a writer. So he declined acceptance to a Master of Fine Arts program to seek out a more community-oriented career.
“If you’re a very good writer, whatever career you find yourself in, uses will be made of that,” said Wilber. “It makes a huge difference in the job market if you are extremely articulate in person and in writing.”
In his search, he consulted his high school librarian, who told him about the library science program at Syracuse University. Wilber saw this as the perfect opportunity and was accepted to the University for the fall of 1992.
In this time between undergraduate and graduate work, Wilber attempted constructing his first crossword puzzle with just a pencil, the dictionary and graph paper. He kept working at his craft and sold his first crossword to Dell Champion Magazine in 1993. Between 1993 and 2002, the frequency of his puzzlemaking slowly declined into something close to retirement.
His passion was reignited when he watched the documentary “Wordplay” about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which was founded in 1987 by Will Shortz, the current crossword editor for the New York Times. He attended the tournament in 2007 as a staffer and since has returned 9 more times, most recently this past April.
Today, his puzzles have appeared 48 times in the New York Times. He also appears regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and Newsday.
Working at the Chronicle as an editor, his puzzle output has decreased, but he has become more involved in the community of crossword enthusiasts and professionals. Much of his work today is collaborative with constructors from Pasadena, Boston, Atlanta, St. Peter and even South Africa.