Before she made the world laugh, Erma Bombeck wrote, loved and mothered in Dayton.
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
Matilda Wormwood, the 5-year-old main character in Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” taught herself to read at the age 3 as a result of her unbound love for the written word.
When Lucy Pevensie discovers a doorway to the magical world of Narnia in “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe,” her colorful adventure is nothing short of extraordinary. Of course, it is one that would have never been possible without the creative genius of the book’s author, C.S. Lewis.
And when American humorist Erma Bombeck was just 5 years old, she fell so in love with books — even though she couldn’t yet read — that she would race around the house, collecting all the volumes she could find and then take them with her to school, according to ErmaMuseum.org. At Christmas, while her friends begged for dolls and bikes, she could only hope there would be books waiting for her under the tree.
Books — the characters, language, creativity, feel of the pages between one’s fingers, smell — are for many readers a way to travel to another world, to discover new ideas, a love for a particular genre or a character who feels so real that reading the last page of a book feels like leaving behind a best friend.
For Bombeck, it was that kind of adoration for books that eventually led to her desire to write for her school newspaper. And it was that love of writing that eventually led Bombeck to the career that left her still famous for her words today.
“Daily life with her [Erma] was much like the lives of her many fans and readers,” said Erma Bombeck’s husband, Bill Bombeck. “She had the ability to take family situations that most of her readers also experienced and give them her unique, humorous twist. Her subjects’ antics rarely led to anger or disappointment because her self-effacing style made her the one we could all laugh at.
“I had my own defense if my fellow workers would kid me about being in the feature of the day. I would remind them that Erma was a great American writer of fiction.”
Erma Bombeck’s syndicated column, “At Wit’s End,” appeared in more than 900 newspapers. She wrote 12 books, including “Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own,”
“Family –– The Ties that Bind … and Gag!” and “I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression.” Bombeck also appeared regularly on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America for 11 years.
“I know of no other writer as disciplined as Erma was,” Bill Bombeck said. “She wrote her column right up to a week before she died.”
Erma Bombeck’s health began to decline in 1992 as a result of a breast cancer diagnosis and eventual mastectomy. In 1994, a hereditary kidney disease left her on dialysis and, eventually, led to a kidney transplant that caused her death after she suffered complications as a result of the surgery. She died on April 22, 1996.
Bill Bombeck said he and Erma were both born in Dayton in 1927. Erma attended the Dayton public schools, Emerson Junior High and Patterson High School, and Bill attended Saint Anthony Catholic School and Chaminade High School.
Her persistence to become a writer was evident even in her younger years, according to ErmaMuseum.org:
“One day when she was 15, Erma walked into the office of the managing editor of the Dayton Herald, the city’s afternoon newspaper, and said, ‘I want to work for your paper.’ The editor explained that only a full-time position was available.”
After providing the editor with what seemed like a reasonable compromise, Erma was hired. She penned her first journalistic work in 1943, interviewing Shirley Temple when she visited Dayton. The interview became a newspaper feature.
From 1946 to 1947, Bill Bombeck said Erma wrote a column in the Arkay News, the publication for employees of Rike’s department store where she also worked.
Bill Bombeck said, “We graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949 (Erma) and 1950 (me). She was a writer off and on for the Dayton Herald from high school until she started our family in the 1950s. By 1958, the couple had three children, Betsy, Andrew and Matthew.
“We first met when she was a copygirl at the Herald and I was a copyboy for the Dayton Journal in the 1940s. After leaving the Herald, Erma wrote for The Shopping News, Kettering-Oakwood Times, and did PR for the YWCA. Much of this work was done at home.”
Bill Bombeck said he and Erma exchanged letters when he was in the Army from June 1945 until January 1947.
“She was a loyal correspondent, much better than I,” he said. “Most of her notes were funny. She even included photos with funny comments. She had a sense of humor that some couldn’t quite understand.”
But, luckily, there were definitely a few who did. In 1965, the Dayton Journal-Herald hired Erma to produce two columns a week, according to Bill Bombeck. Within a few weeks, her column was syndicated by Newsday Syndicate into 36 major U.S. newspapers. Her first book, “At Wit’s End,” was published in 1967. By 1970, Erma had given several speeches in Phoenix, AZ.
“She found the Southwest an exciting and booming environment,” Bill Bombeck said.
From 1950 to 1971, Bill Bombeck worked for the local public schools as a teacher and administrator.
“I wanted to return to graduate school, and all our children seemed at crossroads with their schooling,” he said. “In 1971, Erma convinced us that this would be an opportune time to make a change. We moved to Paradise Valley, Ariz. Once we got used to the famous ‘dry heat,’ we did not look back.”
Bombeck was featured in ABC’s Good Morning America from 1975 until 1986, recording commentaries and interviews from her new home in Arizona. She appeared on screen with famous personalities like Rona Barrett, David Hartman, Jack Anderson, Jonathan Winters and Geraldo Rivera. Much of the humor she used throughout her column was a part of her appearances, but she also began to interview celebrities like Zsa Zsa Gabor and comedienne Phyllis Diller.
After 11 years of simultaneously appearing on GMA, writing newspaper columns and best-selling books, producing and writing a television sitcom and raising her children, Bombeck decided to leave GMA, according to a 2004 news release from the University of Dayton.
The Erma Bombeck online museum [ermamuseum.org] was launched in February 2002. The museum includes audio and video clips of Erma’s family and friends, such as Phil Donahue (who actually used to live across the street from the Bombecks in Dayton), Bil Keane, Mike Peters and Liz Carpenter. The museum also contains rare columns and photos, Erma’s biography and seven complete episodes of the Maggie sitcom Erma wrote and executive produced.
Bill Bombeck points to Erma’s dedication to writing as the driving force behind her success. In fact, when asked if he believes Erma Bombeck held true to one of her most famous quotes: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me,’” Bill Bombeck said she most “definitely” tapped into ever last reserve of talent she possessed.
“She had a daily schedule that she clung to five days a week — no Saturday or Sunday writing,” Bill Bombeck said. “Vacation every year with no writing or business negotiations. She never complained about writer’s block. She could put a piece of paper in her IBM Selectric and know almost intuitively the length of an essay or column. TIME magazine sent a reporter to interview her for a cover story. He told me she was like a ‘writing machine,’ switching from column essays to scripts for her Good Morning America appearances or a piece for Good Housekeeping.”
Bill Bombeck said Erma was always sure to attribute credit for the early beginnings of her writing career to the University of Dayton and the professors who supported her talents.
“As a contributor to the student magazine at UD, she surprised many with her first-person, self-effacing style,” Bill Bombeck said. “She had received support from a number of her teachers (but not her family) for a career in journalism. Her favorite teachers, Jim Harris at Patterson and Bro. Tom Price at UD, were very supportive.”
According to the University of Dayton’s website, what Price told Erma Bombeck were the three words she needed to hear to catapult her writing career, “You can write!”
And her legacy is ever-present throughout the university today. Each year the University of Dayton, where Erma earned her English degree, hosts the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (initiated by Price’s family), in addition to a bi-annual writing competition that they sponsor in partnership with the Washington Centerville Public Library in Centerville, where Bombeck wrote several of the books and columns that made her famous today.
There are other evidences of Bombeck’s impact on Dayton that can be seen throughout the city. Signs of “Erma Bombeck Way” line a section of Brown Street. And the author is buried in an unmarked grave in Woodland Cemetery, marked by a 29,000-pound rock that is the monument for her grave. The rock was brought by flatbed truck from her home in Arizona.
Bill Bombeck said his wife’s personality and life could be summed up in a few simple words: “Supreme dedication to her faith, her family, her fans, her art (writing).”
Today, that loyalty is carried on by the numerous fan clubs, writing groups and people who admire Bombeck’s work. Her columns feel always relevant, carrying a bit of wisdom or advice that even the modern day woman can find useful in her day-to-day life. Her words are consistently quoted, whether by a present-day writer or a teenager on Facebook, Erma Bombeck and her written legacy live on. Perhaps, it was her love of writing, or maybe it was her readers’ love of her words –– it may have been a happy mix of both. Either way, one can assume that the timeless energy of Erma Bombeck exists because of the smile she wore on her face while plunking away at the keys on her typewriter. Like she once said, “Humorists can never start to take themselves seriously.”
A motto certainly worth living by.
For more information about Erma Bombeck, visit www.ermamuseum.org. Registration for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton begins December 6 at www.humorwriters.org. The workshop will run April 19-21, 2012.
Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at CarolineShannonKarasik@DaytonCityPaper.com.