Tag Archives: Alan Southworth

The Puzzle Of Alan Southworth

Westporters have a special relationship with the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Every year, puzzle editor Will Shortz hosts a competition at the library. (The upcoming 19th annual event is February 3.)

When library director Maxine Bleiweis retired in 2015, Shortz showed up — and presented her with a specially created, “MB”-themed puzzle.

Two months ago, “Westport” was even the answer to a clue — “Affluent Connecticut town” — in a Times crossword puzzle.

But our special relationship goes only so far. To be published by the paper, a puzzle must be good. Very good.

Alan Southworth’s is. Which is why — ta-da! — the 2010 Staples High School graduate makes his debut today as a New York Times puzzle constructor.

Alan Southworth (left) and Will Shortz, at last year’s Westport Library crossword puzzle contest.

The best constructors know a lot, about a lot of things. They have varied interests. Southworth definitely does.

At Staples he sang with the Orphenians, joined the jazz band, competed on the math team, and played freshman basketball.

At Princeton he majored in geosciences (and was certified in sustainable energy and environmental studies). He works now as an energy market consultant, in a Manhattan firm run by 2001 Staples grads Gabe Phillips and Jonathan Spivak. In his spare time, he plays singer-songwriter gigs around the city.

Southworth always loved words. He grew up playing Scrabble and Boggle with his mom, and relaxed before bed with Sudoku and KenKen.

In college, he discovered crosswords. He and his friends challenged themselves with the Times puzzle in the dining hall.

After graduation, he commuted nearly 2 hours each way. Vowing to be as productive as possible, he spent his train rides writing song lyrics. That soon morphed into crossword theme ideas.

His college friend Ryan McCarty had a couple of puzzles accepted by the Times. He wanted to collaborate. So Southworth devised themes. McCarty did most of the grid construction. Together they wrote clues.

They’ve kept a Google Doc of puzzle ideas ever since.

Their first 2 puzzles were rejected. This one was accepted, Southworth thinks, because the theme answers were a  bit “cleaner,” and the grid more open (fewer black squares in the middle).

Having a crossword accepted is quite an accomplishment. Having your first one run on a Thursday is remarkable. That’s the toughest day for a themed puzzle. (Monday is the easiest; Tuesday and Wednesday are a bit harder. Friday and Saturday are reserved for themeless — but more difficult — puzzles.)

Southworth has a digital subscription to the Times. But today he’ll buy a dead-tree copy of the paper — and make copies for his co-workers.

Here in Westport, his parents have promised to save their copy for him too.

Word!

It wasn’t quite curling up with the New York Times crossword.

More like racing through it, trying to beat dozens of other crossword aficionados. The grand prize: A book (about words) donated in your name to the Westport Library.

Your name on a new plaque.

And — 24 hours before the Super Bowl — the knowledge that you’re a champion in a competition using (instead of destroying) brain cells.

It happened this afternoon: the Library’s 18th annual Crossword Puzzle Contest.

Jeff Wieser was ready for the Crossword Puzzle Contest. The countdown clock is in the background. There were 3 preliminary rounds, of 20 minutes each.

Jeff Wieser was ready for the Crossword Puzzle Contest. The countdown clock is in the background. There were 3 preliminary rounds, of 20 minutes each.

I was there for the 1st time. The McManus Room was filled with fellow puzzlers. Many had come to previous contests. A few had been to every one.

Eric Maddy came all the way from Huntington Beach, California (and wore shorts). He seemed to know a lot of folks. Crossword solvers have created quite a community.

But there were plenty of familiar faces. Sitting across from me was Jeff Wieser, CEO of Homes With Hope. On my right was Alan Southworth, the 2010 Staples High grad/musician/marathon runner/crossword creator (he hopes Will Shortz will select one of his puzzles for the Times).

Will Shortz: New York Times puzzle editor, Westport Library contest host, all-around cool guy.

Will Shortz: New York Times puzzle editor, Westport Library contest host, all-around cool guy.

Shortz himself — the Times puzzle editor/NPR host/Indiana University enigmatology major — was at today’s contest too. He served as the genial, wisecracking, challenging host.

The diverse, high-energy crowd was perfect for Shortz. And he had 3 strong puzzles — a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (in ascending order of difficulty) for us.

I did not win. I did not make the cut as one of 3 finalists. I am, however, extremely proud to say that I did receive a perfect score on all 3 puzzles.

I earned a certificate for that, signed by Will Shortz himself.

A couple dozen others got certificates too. It was that kind of group.

And that kind of only-in-Westport afternoon.

PS: The 3 puzzles will be published in upcoming Times editions. Will gave us the back stories about them. One is by the youngest creator in Times history. When we heard that, no one in the room felt smart at all.

You might even call us clueless.

The 3 finalists. Andy Kravis (right) of New York City won, finishing a Friday puzzle in a blazing 4:50. Eric Maddy (center) finished 2nd. He came all the way from California -- and received ed a Westport Library tote bag in appreciation.

The 3 finalists. Andy Kravis (right) of New York City won, finishing a Friday puzzle in a blazing 4:50. Eric Maddy (center) was 2nd. He came all the way from California — and received a Westport Library tote bag in appreciation.

From now on, the winner's name will be etched on a plaque bearing the name of Howard Brody. As the

From now on, the winner’s name will be etched on a plaque honoring longtime puzzle fan Howard Brody. As the award notes, he “never had a cross word for anyone.”

Jake Bernard’s “City Of Love”

Jake Yarmoff is a singer/songwriter. So it’s not surprising that he cites Alice Lipson as a major influence. At Staples High School — from which he graduated in 2010 — the choral teacher helped him hone his smooth sound.

But he also was mentored by English instructor Julia McNamee. “She woke me up my last 2 years there, ” Yarmoff — who now goes by the easier-to-remember name Jake Bernard — says. “She taught me to be harder on myself, and made me the writer I am.”

Jake Bernard

Jake Bernard

Even math teacher Lenny Klein made an impact. “His policy of total honesty and great sense of humor were so important,” Bernard says. “He’s all about taking your work seriously — but not yourself.”

With that background, it’s not too surprising that at Penn State the aspiring entertainer majored in … finance. And minored in sociology.

He interned with Vanguard after junior year, then joined the investment firm full-time in financial sales at its Philadelphia headquarters. Bernard calls Vanguard “a great company, and a fantastic experience.” But he left 8 months ago.

“I knew I had somewhere else to be,” he says simply.

That “somewhere else” was metaphorical — not physical. He remained in Philly, and dedicated himself to his musical craft.

“My goal in my career is to have a positive impact — to inspire and give ‘wow’ moments, like other musicians have for me,” Bernard says.

“I want to make people smile, laugh and be their full selves. Ever since I was little, in every interaction with people — even outside of music — that’s been my aim.”

So Bernard wrote songs. He played. And he’s been in the studio, recording a series of singles he’ll release over the coming months.

Right now, “City of Love” is getting a lot of attention. And love.

It’s a 2-way street. Bernard has come to appreciate Philadelphia — a place that, growing up in Westport, he never really thought of — for its small-town-in-a-big-city vibe.

It took several months to get the tune right. But it — and a music video that shows Bernard singing and playing in some of Philadelphia’s most iconic spots (yes, of course including the “Rocky” steps!) — is a catchy, compelling love song to his adopted city.

Bernard knows that — musically speaking — the City of (Brotherly) Love is not in the same league as New York, Los Angeles, Nashville or Austin. It does have a lively hip hop, rap and jazz scene.

But the “beach pop” genre that Bernard specializes in (think Jason Mraz, and Fairfield’s own John Mayer) is wide open. He hopes to fill it.

Jake Bernard, in the city he loves.

Jake Bernard, in the city he loves.

Yet he retains his Westport roots. He recently performed at Toquet Hall with Alan Southworth — a friend since orchestra at Coleytown Elementary School — and Dustin Lowman, another Staples grad on the fast musical track. Bernard has also played alongside Staples alum Drew Angus.

Jake Yarmoff loves Westport. Jake Bernard loves Philadelphia.

And both places love both Jakes right back.

(Christmas) Music To Our Ears

If you’ve had it up the wazoo with chestnuts and the friggin’ fire — but still yearn for Christmas music — you’re in luck.

WWPT-FM (90.3 “Wrecker Radio”) is airing this year’s Candlelight Concert, now through Wednesday. You’ll hear beautiful, sophisticated music, lovingly played and sung.

Candlelight Concert 2012 - Staples High School

As an added bonus, the Candlelight Concert alternates on WWPT with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This “old-time radio broadcast” — a combined effort of Staples Players and the audio production class — is a must-listen, too.

Will Haskell, Keleigh Brockman and Bryan Gannon intently perform "It's a Wonderful Life."

Will Haskell, Keleigh Brockman and Bryan Gannon intently perform “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Not home for the holidays? No problem! Click here to listen live.

For a different Christmas sound, click here or on the YouTube link below:

It’s the Princeton Nassoons, who performed Thursday night at the Seabury Center.

Alan Southworth — a Staples grad, now president of the famed a cappella group — is shown at the beginning of the video presenting flowers to his mother, Fran. She then joins her son’s group for a lovely rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”

Merry Christmas!

A Southworth December

This is quite a month for the Southworth family.

Tomorrow  (Sunday, December 9, 2 p.m.), Frannie and Jeff Southworth’s Heart & Soul Band perform at the Westport Library.

Less than 2 weeks later — Thursday, December 20 (8 p.m., Seabury Center) — Alan Southworth’s Princeton Nassoons present a holiday  concert.

The music — Heart & Soul plays songs from the 1920s to the 2010s, while the Nassoon’s are a very entertaining a cappella group — is tremendous.

But the concerts are just 2 more examples of the ways the very talented  Southworth clan gives back to the town.

Frannie and Jeff Southworth

Frannie Southworth— well known for her television and radio commercials, and as country-western singer Jimmie Sue on “As The World Turns”– has lived in Westport for 22 years. She’s performed often at First Night, and ”Broadway on Beachside” for The American Cancer Society.

Frannie has helped raise over $50,000 for charities like Project ALS, World Hunger Year, and the Circle of Care’s main fundraiser.

Jeff toured and recorded with Hall & Oates, Laura Branigan and Graham Nash. He’s written, arranged and produced for Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Wynonna Judd, Ray Charles and Aaron Neville.

This fall, he and Frannie donated their time and talents to the Caron Center, an event for drug and alcohol abuse treatment.

Alan Southworth

Their son Alan has followed the family tradition of community involvement. A singer, classical pianist, and bass and mandolin player, the 2010 Staples graduate raised money for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and the Invisible Children Club.  He has performed at many Westport functions, and with his parents at a nursing home.

His Princeton Nassoons group sings around the world, often for charitable causes.

December is a crazy month for everyone. It’s also a month when we try to give a bit of ourselves to others.

Just as the Southworths have done for so long.

(To reserve a ticket for the Nassoons’ concert — $35; $25 for seniors age 70 and older, and children under 18 — email frans@optonline.net)