Donald believes he is ‘the luckiest man on earth’. Here’s a clue to why

Donald Harrison makes people think for a living. Try these: “Kate arranged work in garden city” or “Captain Fish, backing scripture, to hold on.”

Harrison is DH, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s Tuesday crossword compiler of nearly three decades – or, as he says, a “professional cruciverbalist”.

“By far the best job I’ve ever had. I regard myself as the luckiest man on earth. I envy nobody,” he says. “I am very happy with my lot.”

Donald Harrison, crossword master and Herald cryptic compiler.Credit:Lee Grant

Harrison, 89, has created more than 2400 crosswords for the mastheads, always filing on time or well in advance. In fact, he has crosswords ready for up to mid-January next year.

“It’s just that I get so much fun in working out the clues and even chuckle at them myself when I think, ‘gosh, that’s a good clue!‘” (For those wondering, answers to the above are ‘TOPEKA’ and ‘CLING TO’, respectively.)

The father of four, grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of 11, who lives on the NSW south coast, starting thinking outside the square and conjuring up clues in pursuit of the perfect puzzle early on.

“I got started when I was about 11, looking over my mother’s shoulder while she was doing a Lindsay Brown crossword,” Harrison said. “A clue came up [and] I worked out very quickly the answer was ‘neon’. I became rather hooked on the idea of cryptic crosswords from then on.”

Donald Harrison puts his crosswords together from his home on the NSW south coast, using a variety of tools and his signature sense of humour.Credit:Lee Grant

As a young man, Harrison studied civil engineering before switching to architecture, a field in which he worked for many years. In the ’90s, he considered what other profession he would like to pursue “to stir my mental juices”. He put together a series of sample crosswords, and sent them off to puzzle publishers across Australia. In those days, he wrote them all in longhand.

“Within about probably three weeks or so, I had a letter from the owner of [publisher] Puzzle People asking me if I would do a book of 54 cryptic crosswords.”

The Wordmaster, a gift from Donald’s wife from early in his crossword career. Donald swears by the Crossword Compiler software these days.Credit:Lee Grant

He has now created more than 130 puzzle books, including quick crosswords, trivia crosswords, quizzes in crossword form as well as puzzles for “a bank-staff magazine, a pathology magazine, a building publication”. He started at the Herald in 1994.

“Lindsay Brown was my hero. I shared Tuesdays with him but I never met the man. I’m most impressed because in reading his obituary years ago, he apparently started at about the age of 19, and he was doing them for 70-plus years,” he laughs. “I won’t be doing that, but I’m doing my best to keep hanging on!”

Harrison says he doesn’t have a favourite word – or one he’s been hankering to use – but aficionados would be familiar with his interest in Greek mythology. Now the master of Tuesdays, Donald has “heaps of dictionaries and thesauruses and biblical dictionaries,” he says. A Wordmaster gifted to him before his compiling days stays on his desk.

His gift, however, keeps on giving. When a reader wrote in to ask if the team could make the quick crosswords easier for his wife – who suffered from dementia but enjoyed tackling the less difficult crosswords – Harrison wrote 3000 of them, tailored for her, so she could do three each day.

Donald Harrison with one of the many crossword books he has written for Puzzle People.Credit:Lee Grant

“I try to think of other people. It’s one of my basic philosophies: you care about other people,” he says. “I could do it. And so I did do it. It’s as simple as that.”

‘A clue came up [and] I worked out very quickly the answer was “neon”. I became rather hooked on the idea of cryptic crosswords from then on.’

The Herald’s crossword editor, Lynne Cairncross, says Harrison has a reputation for such acts of kindness.

“He is extremely generous,” Cairncross says. “He’s lovely. And he connects with anybody.

“He is meticulous, and never [files] late. He’s remarkable. His stamina and his ability to stay calm under pressure, he is extremely resilient.”

Harrison says creating crosswords – and doing something he loves every day – has brought him pure joy.

“Certainly, if the young person said to me that they were interested in such a thing, I would say: if that’s what you really enjoy, do it. I wish I had started years and years ago,” he says. “It’s been a very interesting life, I tell you. Like I say, I feel I’m the luckiest man on earth.”

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