Tom Pepper has no problem admitting he’s a geek.
By day, he’s the soft-spoken finance director for the city of Eagan. But get him talking about the crossword puzzles he constructs in his free time and his eyes light up.
Eight of his puzzles have been published so far. Four have been in the New York Times — the pinnacle for crossword constructors — and he’s waiting to hear about another he’s submitted to editor Will Shortz. Others have been in the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and on several websites.
In 2013, one of Pepper’s creations was nominated for Puzzle of the Year at the Orca awards, the Academy Awards of crossword puzzles. It was a civil rights-themed puzzle, Pepper explained.
A clue in the center asks for the man who preceded Johnson as U.S. president in the ’60s. Kennedy (1960-1963), right? But Lincoln (1861-1865) also works and all the clues and answers that intersect with that answer work both ways.
“Vegas attraction?” Keno or Leno. “It recognizes excellence in athletics?” ESPY or ESPN.
“So that’s the tricky part of that,” Pepper said, grinning. “Isn’t that somethin’?”
Pepper, 60, said he remembers when he was a boy watching his grandmother solve crossword puzzles. He remembers making a few “really crappy puzzles” for family Christmases or birthdays.
Then he watched “Wordplay,” a 2006 documentary about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
“Watching that made me think, ‘Wow, maybe I could try to get one published, wouldn’t that be cool!’ ” he said.
These days, there is software that helps a puzzle constructor put the crossword grid together. There are word lists.
“It doesn’t do it for you, but it helps,” Pepper said. “Coming up with a theme is the tricky part.”
There are databases, too, to help constructors find out is a theme has been used in the past.
In the New York Times, only Friday and Saturday puzzles have a theme. The first three puzzles Pepper submitted to the Times were rejected. The one that was accepted had a “clock” theme, starting at the top center.
The clue: “A gross.” The answer “Dozen,” followed by “[One]half,” “[Two]faced,” “[Three]part,” and so on, following the hands of a clock.
“People really liked that puzzle,” Pepper said. “I think it turned out to be a fairly easy puzzle — if you can get the gimmick.”
Crossword puzzle constructors come from all over the country, but there’s a fairly large number of them in the Twin Cities, Pepper said. They stay in touch through social gatherings, Internet forums and blogs. The most popular blog (http://rexwordpuzzle.blogspot.com/) reviews each day’s New York Times puzzle and garners a hundred or more comments every day.
“It’s such a weird, geeky thing,” Pepper said of his social crossword group. “It’s just cool to be with people who understand the geekiness.”
In his salaried position, Pepper oversees Eagan’s $31 million general fund budget. He joined the city of Eagan in 1992 as assistant finance director after working for an auditing firm where one of his clients was the city. He was promoted to finance director at the end of 2012.
Pepper lives in Edina, where he grew up and where he and his now-ex-wife raised their two daughters after spending several years in Eugene, Ore.
He says he’s not extreme in his crossword puzzle solving, doing only one or two each day. But when he’s gotten an idea and is constructing a puzzle, “it’s hard to make me go to bed at night. I just want to work until I get it done.”
For the past four years, he’s been at the national crossword puzzle tournament in Stanford, Conn. Out of 600 competitors, he finishes at about 400, he said. A modest finish for a modest man.