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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Stone Gardens: Charleston woman exceeded expectations as 20th century puzzle constructor, playwright

The story of 19th-century-born Charleston resident Helen Lyle Pettigrew might be puzzling to some, but not for who she was as much as for what she did.

Pettigrew, born on Halloween Day in 1894 in the Franklin County town, was a regional playwright, author of greeting card verses, published in Jack and Jill magazine and even wrote literature for Sunday school publications.

But it was her predilection for words games and crossword puzzles that cemented her place in history.

In what had basically always been a male dominated field, especially so at the beginning of the 21st century, Pettigrew is recognized as one of the earliest successful woman “constructors” and undoubtedly the first Arkansan to have a puzzle published in both the New York Herald and the New York Times.

Pettigrew was born on October 31, 1894, in Charleston to Thomas Aldridge Pettigrew, who was a prominent lawyer and educator, and Lucy Lee Ervin Pettigrew.

Her father was the son of Charleston Academy founder John M. Pettigrew. She had three sisters and one brother, and was a member of the local Presbyterian Church. By 1920, Pettigrew was a teacher in the Charleston School District.

Pettigrew also wrote poetry, plays for children, and religious literature. Her first known published work was a poem for The Kindergarten-Primary Magazine in 1919; she also published poems in The Instructor magazine. Pettigrew wrote verses for greeting cards, as well as one song (“Oh, You Flu”), which was copyrighted in 1919.

Her first known puzzle was a crossword published in 1928 by the New York Herald Tribune. The puzzle was titled “Down in Arkansas” although not a single clue or answer in the grid had any relationship to the Natural State.

By 1930, her crosswords had also appeared in the New York World and in Simon and Schuster’s Cross Word Puzzle Book series.

In the 1940s, Pettigrew began publishing puzzles in The Rotarian, continuing into the 1960s. In the 1950s, she created puzzles containing images and poetry as well as word play; these were published in various newspapers.

In the 1970s, she started writing Bible-themed puzzle books (her sister Lucile Pettigrew Johnson also wrote puzzle books of this type).

Pettigrew’s only known crossword to appear in the New York Time was published on April 15, 1974.

Pettigrew never married and she lived with and took care of her father in Charleston for much of her life after her mother’s death. She moved to Booneville shortly before her death on March 6, 1977.

Probably the most puzzling thing about Pettigrew is the fact that a schoolmarm in what was basically rural Arkansas at the time achieved success in a male-dominated field, but also managed to find success nationally from the Johnson County farm on which she lived.

She certainly was an early force in dispelling some of the myths about the basic intelligence of Arkansans in that era.

Pettigrew is buried in Parks Cemetery in Charleston near her father and other family members.

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