Man proposes to girlfriend in Tribune ‘Jumble’ puzzle

Christen A. Johnson
Chicago Tribune

Evanston, Ill. -- When Aly Jiwani began to consider taking the next step with his anagram-loving girlfriend, Paula Acuna, he had a vision for the perfect puzzle proposal.

“One of our earliest memories is to use our Chicago Tribune app on her iPad and zoom into the ‘Jumble’ page,” said Jiwani, 30. “Then, we use a piece of scratch paper on the side to solve the ‘Jumble.’ ”

Paula Acuña and her fiance, Aly Jiwani, with their dog Benji, show the “Jumble” puzzle that she solved before she accepted his marriage proposal.

“Jumble” is a cartoon-word game combination in which you unscramble four words, and once you unscramble those words, there are circled letters within the words, and those letters are used to solve a mystery answer that is based on the cartoon, according to David Hoyt, the “Jumble’s” wordsmith.

Jiwani said Acuna loves word puzzles, everything from The New York Times crossword to a book of NPR Sunday puzzles he gave her.

“It’s a thing,” Jiwani said. “I enjoy doing the puzzles with her. She’s way sharper at puzzles than I am.”

Jiwani sought out the Tribune about six months ago to make his proposal plans come to life.

“I began doing research in terms of the differences between the Chicago Tribune (newspaper) and the … Tribune Content Agency (the separate business unit that syndicates articles and features),” he said. “I had a friend at the Tribune, and she connected me to the agency. It took me two or three emails, but after following up, I was put in touch with David directly.”

Jiwani, who was introduced to the “Jumble” by Acuna, said he “was pretty starstruck” when Hoyt reached out in January via email and then a phone call.

“Once he and I got on the phone,” said Hoyt, “I told him what his options were.”

Collectively, Jiwani and Hoyt started coming up with ideas on what the answer to the clue would be. After an initial failed pitch that “wasn’t punny enough,” Jiwani came up with the answer: “Had a nice ring to it.”

Once that was decided, Jiwani was tasked with coming up with a setting for the cartoon.

“I started thinking about something that’s personal to us,” said Jiwani. “We like to sail on Lake Michigan, so I pitched that to Jeff (Knurek), the one who does the drawings. I came up with us being on a sailboat, with our dog Benji as well, with me going down on one knee with the ring in hand.”

Knurek, the “Jumble” cartoonist, did his best to include all of Jiwani’s ideas in the image.

“I did my best to bring them into the “Jumble” world, but still maintain their features, so people can look at the cartoon and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s them,’ ” said Knurek.

The last element was the dialogue in the cartoon, which Hoyt said was crucial.

“We had to make sure that the dialogue all made sense,” he said. “In this case, because it has to do with what’s being said, it was important that the dialogue all match. It has to play for everybody and be completely understandable. And that’s the trick.”

Jiwani came up with the wording for the dialogue, which read: “Would you like to be my first mate for life?”

“The first mate is a boating term,” he explained, “which is used for the person second in command. Paula will immediately get it. It’ll be nice and personal for us.”

At the last minute, Jiwani said, the “Jumble” creators threw in a bonus: “David told me they added “Paula” to the dialogue! It’s truly personal now.”

The personalized “Jumble” ran in approximately 600 papers. Jiwani said Hoyt and Knurek typically run the puzzles with the longer clues in the Sunday papers.