Capital Region Scrapbook: Hanging on every word

Newspaper puzzles — for cash prizes — were popular features during the 1950s and 1960s. The Gazette'

Was the correct answer “strike” or “strive?”

Would the judges accept “saving” or “saying?”

Could the right word be “hired” or “fired?”

The riddles were not puzzlements to Lucy Payne of Rotterdam, Loria Armstrong of Schenectady and Helen Motler of Albany — they were “Pruzzlements.”

The three women were among the thousands of puzzle fans who played the latest “Pruzzle” crossword in the Schenectady Gazette during the spring of 1955. The Gazette had published the latest challenge on Saturday, April 23; on Thursday, April 28, the women learned they had cracked the newsprint case.

The April 23 challenge had been worth $468.75, as nobody had solved the riddles correctly during the past few weeks. The effort was financially worthwhile for the mentally enabled; every time readership struck out, the newspaper added another $25 to the jackpot. People wanted that dough — 35,911 completed “Pruzzles” were mailed or dropped off to the Gazette’s headquarters on State Street during the last week of April. That number was not the record; 40,200 entries had flooded the newspaper’s mailroom during the week of April 1.

The three winners split the proceeds, and each received a check for $166.67 — the Gazette must have rounded off the final figure to $500. The smart ladies also enjoyed fame along with the fortune. Their photographs were published on the front page of the newspaper’s local section on April 29.

Crossword with a twist

The “Pruzzle” was a crossword with a twist. More than one answer was possible.

Newspaper puzzles — for cash prizes — were popular features in newsprint during the 1950s and 1960s. They encouraged readership and patronage. New York City’s Herald Tribune began its “Tangle Towns” contest in 1954, and challenged readers to unscramble names of local cities. The puzzles became a fad, and helped the Herald increase circulation.

At the Gazette, readers could submit unlimited “Pruzzle” entries. John F. Thomas of Niskayuna, who hit the “Pruzzle” in December 1955 for an early Christmas present of $93.75, said 64 was his highest “Pruzzle” count. He submitted eight the week he had all the answers, and his correct entry was better than the other 4,931 puzzles submitted.

To make life easier for the “Pruzzle editor,” word and treasure hunters were encouraged to paste their completed puzzles on the backs of postcards. A winner who had used the postcard method received a 25 percent bonus on top of the jackpot.

Reviewing thousands of puzzles and writing checks to winners were small sacrifices for newspaper chief executives. Even though “Pruzzleheads” were allowed to draw their own crossword boxes and include their answers, newspaper brass knew some people would buy several Saturday issues for the “Pruzzles.” The players also might talk about the contest with their friends, and perhaps convince them to buy the Gazette and try their luck.

Strive or strike?

Sometimes, luck was better than smarts. A question in the April 23 feature gave readers this incomplete statement to think about — “If you aren’t prepared to STRI– hard when the time comes, an opportunity may be lost.”

Lucy, Loria and Helen could have picked “strike” or “strive,” and all three chose wisely — “strike.”

The answers announced in the following Saturday’s newspaper explained that “strike” hard made more sense than “strive” hard, because the word “strive” already implied hard work was involved in a task.

The women also deduced the correct answer for 25 across, which provided the letters “-IRED.”

Working with the clue “You can’t expect the president of the company to take much interest when a junior is -IRED,” the word detectives guessed right with “hired.” “Pruzzle” designers later explained a top boss would not be concerned with a new man or woman joining the firm. But if the junior was fired, a serious offense could be the reason — and the president would likely be consulted.

People played the guessing game with their pencils every weekend. The Gazette published the “Pruzzle” every Saturday morning, and needed all tests back at the newspaper the following Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Three winners

Lucy Payne received the news of her victory at Draper High School in Rotterdam, where she had taught English since 1928. She was in class when she received a message to call the Gazette. “I knew right away what it must be,” she said. “It was thrilling.”

Payne said she had struggled with the “fired” and “hired” answer, and also chose “resist” over “desist” and “room” over “roof” to earn her payday. “I won $10 in a quiz contest at Proctor’s once and a sack of flour at a grocery store another time, but nothing like this,” she said.

Loria Armstrong said she and her husband, T.B. Armstrong, worked newspaper puzzles as a hobby. She said she was happy to both win and share the jackpot.

The “Pruzzle” was a well-known pastime around the Motler household. Helen Motler said she broke the news to her 5-year-old son George Motler III by telling him, “Mommy’s got some wonderful news — guess what?”

“You won the Pruzzle,” young George responded.

Helen Motler said she entered the contest most weeks. Unlike Loria, she received no assistance from husband George Motler Jr.

“He doesn’t go for contests,” Motler said. “He said I was foolish, and wasting my time. So I have a gay old time rubbing it in.”

The Motler and Armstrong shares of the loot went to help out family children. Payne decided to use her free money for home improvements. All three winners were eligible to keep “Pruzzling” and win more cash.

“Next week, the prize will be back where it started,” the newspaper’s man on the puzzle beat wrote in the April 29 newspaper. “Twenty-five dollars a week until someone wins again.”

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