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The Wit and Wisdom of Erma Bombeck: Part I

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Mar 05, 2016

“He who laughs ... lasts.”
Erma Bombeck

Only those of us who are a little older will remember the name Erma Bombeck. But whether her name is familiar to you or you are hearing it for the first time, it is appropriate that we ponder the influence of this amazing housewife. 

Erma was born on February 21, 1927 in Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working class family, and was raised in Dayton where her father was the city crane operator. Her formative years were made up of tap dancing and singing and reading some of the popular humorist writers at the time.

Although she began writing a humorous column for her high school newspaper and even worked as a copy girl, and later as a typist and stenographer for the Dayton Herald, she failed most of her literary assignments at Ohio University and was rejected for the university newspaper. She left after one semester.

Later she enrolled at the University of Dayton. While living at home and working odd jobs at a department store, a termite control advertising agency and the local YMCA, her university English professor told her she had great prospects as a writer. She began writing for the University student publication and graduated with a degree in English in 1949. By 1987 she became a lifelong trustee, giving financially and influentially for the investment the institution had made in her life.

For more than 10 years she basically put her writing on hold as she became a full-time housewife. But in 1964 she resumed her writing career with a weekly column for the local Kettering-Oakwood Times and later the Dayton Journal Herald. After three weeks, her humorous articles went into national syndication under the title “At Wit’s End.”

From 1965–1996 Erma wrote over 4000 newspaper columns, using everyday humor as she chronicled the ordinary life of a Midwestern suburban housewife. By the 1970s her columns were read twice-weekly by 30 million readers in 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. 

Published in 1976, Erma’s book “The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank” became a best seller. Two years later she received a million-dollar contract for “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” For over 10 years she appeared regularly on ABC’s Good Morning America and was often seen on numerous television programs.

When Erma was 20 years old she suffered from an incurable, genetic kidney disease. She also survived breast cancer and a mastectomy and until 1993 she kept private that she had kidney disease, enduring daily dialysis. On April 3, 1996 she received a kidney transplant but about three weeks later she died at age 69 from complications caused by the operation. 

Although 20 years have passed since then, I still remember the wit and wisdom she wove into her books and columns. She had the capacity to see everyday life and things most of us missed, and use them in ways that helped us smile. Even the title of her books did that. 

She once said, “My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?” And, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not a coincidence.” 

To this day her words resonate with us. On having children she said, “One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of the hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old she is.”

The more I have been thinking about Erma Bombeck, the more I want to tell you. So, next week I will share some more from the wit and wisdom of this remarkable woman.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
Responses can be mailed to president@valleyforge.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer
Follow on Twitter: @DrDonMeyer
Archives at www.valleyforge.edu/thinkaboutit