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A Puzzling Secret Identity

New Graduate School Dean Spells Out How He’s Written 2 Books on Acrostics

By Sala Levin ’10

man creates acrostic on table with scrabble tiles

Stephen Roth, dean of UMD's Graduate School, has a secret identity as Steven Blakely. Under the pseudonym, Roth has published two books (below) of word puzzles known as acrostics (which he creates with the help of Scrabble tiles). "There's just a little different kind of complexity to acrostic puzzles that I think is unique," said Roth.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

Driving around campus, you might spot a car with a distinctive bumper sticker: “I ❤️ My Thesaurus.” Who’s driving this word-mobile? College Park man of mystery Steven Blakely—better known as Stephen Roth, the new dean of the University of Maryland’s Graduate School.

The pseudonym is the one Roth uses to devise acrostics, a chess-not-checkers approach to word puzzles. It’s not the same-named style of poem where the first letter of each line spells a message; instead, it’s a mind-bending take on a crossword in which clues lead to words that then spell out a phrase, depicted in a puzzle above. Roth has written two books of acrostic puzzles, one based on presidential inaugural addresses and one on movie quotes, under his pen name. (They’re sold on, and through his own website).

“Crossword puzzles are probably the most common relative of them, but there’s just a little different kind of complexity to acrostic puzzles that I think is unique,” Roth said. “You know whether you got it right at the end because the quote makes sense, hopefully.”

Roth has long loved games and puzzles, from his daily Wordle to the party game Code Names, but it was his wife, Blakely Pomietto, who introduced him to acrostics when she gave him a book of the puzzles several years ago. “I thought, how do you go about making these puzzles?” he said. “That intrigued me, and somewhere along the line I decided this would be a fun thing to do.”

To create the puzzles, Roth uses “a big box of Scrabble tiles” to spell out the typically 170ish-character phrase. Then, he mixes them up and turns them into other words “that are completely unrelated to your quote—those become the pathway to solving” the puzzle, he said. “The fun is coming up with interesting words out of all those Scrabble tiles and interesting clues that will lead people to solving those clues.”

[A Smithsonian Instrumental: Music Lecturer Oversees Instruments Collection at National Museum of American History]

two books

His first book of puzzles (2019) tackled presidential inaugural addresses. “I came across this idea of taking historically relevant quotes from each of the presidents’ inaugural addresses that touched on something meaningful during their presidency,” Roth said. Knowing that the topic was somewhat arcane, he turned to movie quotes for inspiration for his second collection (2021). “I thought that would be more interesting (to audiences), and it’s proved true,” he said.

The Steven Blakely nom de plume serves a dual purpose: separating Roth’s personal passion project from his professional pursuits, and combining his name with his wife’s. She’s his editor.

“Whenever I’m struggling with a clue or answer, I pass it along to her, and she typically overrules me and tells me it’s too obscure.”

As dean of the Graduate School, Roth is solving a different set of puzzles, including navigating the consequences of the Supreme Court’s June decision effectively ending race-conscious admissions. Since assuming the position in July, Roth, who was previously associate dean for academic and faculty affairs in the School of Public Health, has been “working to revise our graduate admissions to ensure that not only are we in compliance but that we’re pushing our programs to use holistic admissions and continue to support the campus’ goals for the diversity of our programs.”

In his new position, Roth said he is looking forward to “the chance to innovate with the colleges and other offices on campus. The Graduate School is so collaborative and partners with nearly every entity on campus to support the success of our graduate programs.”

man messes with scrabble tiles in a box


Schools & Departments:

Graduate School

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