Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Erma Bombeck


"Fame is Madonna.  Success is Helen Keller.  Know the Difference."

Erma Bombeck was born Erma Louise Fiste in Bellbrook, Ohio on February 21, 1927.  Truth be told, this blogger didn't know too much about her before visiting her grave, which in itself is so impressive that I felt it deserved a blog.

She grew up in a working class family in historic Dayton, Ohio, her father a crane operator and her mother a housekeeper.  She began elementary school one year early, and it was obvious from an early age that she had an interest in reading and literature.  She also enjoyed the popular humor of the time, no doubt laying the groundwork for the career that would come.

When Erma was nine, her father passed away from polycystic kidney disease (more on this later) and her mother remarried a moving van operator.  At the same time, Erma was developing an interest in tap dancing and singing, and began appearing professionally on a local Ohio radio station.  For eight years, she starred on a children's revue program.

Her first writing gig came in 1940 as a student at Emerson Junior High, where she wrote for the school newspaper.  She'd continue the tradition in high school, often using humor in her stories.  It garnered the attention of the Dayton Herald, who hired her as a copygirl (a term undoubtedly sexist today).  In this role, Bombeck landed her first professional interview with no less than child superstar Shirley Temple.

After graduation, Bombeck enrolled in Ohio University.  She stayed on with the Herald as a means of paying her own tuition. Now there's an outdated concept!  She later transferred to the University of Dayton and was forced to find more traditional means of supporting herself, working in both a department store and at the local YMCA.  She graduated in 1949 with a degree in English.

After taking a few years off to start a family with her husband Bill, Bombeck began writing for the Kettering-Oakwood Times in 1964.  She wrote a weekly column that earned her $3 per article.  Although it was a slow start, within a year her column, aptly titled "At Wit's End," would be syndicated in 36 papers across the country.

Bombeck's popularity continued to grow.  By 1966, she was on the national lecture circuit, bringing her signature wit to cities all across the country.  Just three years later, her column had spread to 500 newspapers throughout the United States and she was simultaneously writing for Good HousekeepingReader's Digest and Family Circle, just to name a few.

Having had a taste of the good life, Bombeck and her family relocated to Phoenix, Arizona.  From there she continued her column and began writing humorous books as well.  Her first one, entitled The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, was released in 1976 and became a best-seller.  Within two years, she'd sign a $1 million contract for her fifth book, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?

By the mid-1980s, Bombeck's column was being published by 900 newspapers, having extended across the border up into Canada.  She was making more and more public appearances, and even served as Grand Marshal for the 97th Tournament of Roses Parade in 1986.  The theme that year was "A Celebration of Laughter."

Like her father before her, Bombeck was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, both incurable and untreatable.  She kept her condition within the family for more than 40 years, finally going public in 1993, after surviving breast cancer and a mastectomy.  She remained on a kidney transplant list for years, finally being matched in 1996.  Although she underwent surgery in early April, she would pass from complications just three weeks later on April 22.  She was 69 years old.

Erma Bombeck was laid to rest right beside the main entrance of Woodlawn Cemetery in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.  The sign points the way......

There is no headstone or marker.  Instead, a large stone, transplanted from her adopted hometown of Phoenix, adorns the grave.

Rest in peace.


  • Bombeck wrote enough books to open up a library.  Check out her impressive collection at Amazon.

  • In the early 1950s, Bombeck and her husband were assured by doctors that it was unlikely they would ever have children.  They adopted a daughter named Betsy.  By 1958 however, the couple had produced two sons, Andrew and Matthew.  Never give up!

  • Bombeck was an active participant for the final implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment, serving on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women in 1978.

  • Bombeck made regular appearances on Good Morning, America from 1975 to 1986, offering commentary, interviews and occasionally, gag segments.  Here's one such segment featuring her with comedian Phyllis Diller.

  • Bombeck was also involved with a number of projects for television, none of which saw much success.  Her first television pilot, The Grass is Always Greener (1978), never made it to series. She tried again in 1981 with Maggie, a series that ran just four episodes on ABC before being canceled.  Interested?  Here's an episode on YouTube.  Look closely and you'll undoubtedly recognize the living room set.  It was later re-purposed for the Bundy Family on Married With Children.

  • The Bombeck Family house in Centreville, Ohio is now a national historic site. Incidentally, the Bombecks were neighbors with Phil Donahue at the time.

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