It has entertained and challenged readers of the Chieftain for the last 10 years.

The Socorro Stumper, the cryptogram puzzle, debuted on El Defensor Chieftain this week in 2012, and creator Dave Thomas says he has no plans of retiring the homegrown feature.

Dave Thomas speaks at a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry convention.
Courtesy photo

Thomas, himself, retired in June from PASSCAL, the earthquake monitoring facility at New Mexico Tech, and says he came up with his version of the cryptogram several years ago.

He describes the Socorro Stumper as a kind of word puzzle, like a crossword puzzle, but instead of definitions, the cryptogram gives you the actual words of a quotation, but with each letter replaced with a different letter, which helps solve a secret word or phrase.

“I try to use quotes from the previous week’s Chieftain,” Thomas said. “A few times, I have had to go outside for quotes. Gov. Lew Wallace, John F. Kennedy, Jerry Garcia, Santa Claus and so on.”

The top number of quotes from the same person goes to Ronna Kalish.

“Developing Secret Words is a tricky procedure, as any secret word or phrase can only contain one of each letter,” Thomas said. “That means that words like ‘pepper’ or ‘that’ can never be used as a secret word. Another rule is that a letter never maps to itself.

“These constraints make coming up with secret words rather difficult; my home-built computer program provides a list of letters that have not been used yet, which can be input to a web page that tries to solve anagrams. That’s how I can find additional words that relate to the first word of a ‘secret word’ in process.”

Claudette Gallegos, according to his tally, has solved the most Stumpers, starting with the very first one and continuing right up to the present. Other longtime solvers include Shorty Vaiza, Sharon Rodgers, Richard Griego, Vivian and Christina McAlexander, and Mike Arms. New regulars include Mickey Cox, Skip Howard, David Pino, Bear Albrecht, Isabel Morris and Brian Svoboda.

He says his interest in word puzzles started “a long time ago.

“I think I got an interest in it from my dad,” Thomas said. “He liked crossword puzzles, but I really didn’t like crossword puzzles until after he passed, and I tried one and thought, ‘Wow these are fun.’”

That led him to try CryptoQuip. “It was on the same page as the crossword.”

A clipping announcing the addition of Thomas’ comic strip in the Chieftain.
Courtesy photo

The first incarnation of his cryptogram appeared in the newsletter for the science group New Mexicans for Reason and Science.

“I did that for our newsletter and then for another group I was a member of, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, they have a newsletter and they asked me to do puzzles for that,” Thomas said. “I did it for them for a few years.”

Thomas’ first appearance in the Chieftain was several decades earlier while he was a student at Tech, with a comic strip called “Saucers Over Socorro,” published from April 1978 to February 1979. It was a light-hearted look at the 1964 UFO sighting by Socorro police Sgt. Lonnie Zamora, and featured local personalities, including the late Tony J. Jaramillo, then mayor of Socorro, as the main character.

Thomas has created a Facebook page — Saucers Over Socorro — where he has archived the entire comic series.

After graduating from Tech, he relocated to Albuquerque, and it wasn’t until 2008 that he found himself working in Socorro again at his most recent position at PASSCAL.

Thomas’ next contribution to the Chieftain followed soon thereafter with a weekly photo puzzler “Where in Socorro Is That?”

“I took photos of some weird or offbeat landmarks in town and have people guess where or what they were,” he said. “They would send me their answer to where they thought it was, and we’d have a winner for each one. I did about 30 of those. I guess there wasn’t enough interest for it to continue.”

Thomas will continue challenging readers with the Socorro Stumper, but he also has other projects in the works.

“Even though I am officially retired, I still have a class a couple of nights a week,” Thomas said. “And I’m hoping to produce some of my non-reversing mirrors. It’s a mirror that when you look at it, you’re not seeing a reverse image. I have a patent on it and hopefully will get it on the market, but that’s a couple of years off.”

Thomas says he may end up busier in retirement than when working full-time.