Birth of a Career


For a year after Betsy was born, Erma played doting mother and science teacher’s wife. She had no plans to return to newspaper work but when she was offered the opportunity to edit the Dayton Shopping News, she grabbed the chance. The little paper contained mostly ads, but once again, Erma vented her timely wit in a personal column. Motherhood filled one void, she realized, her writing another.

Although the doctor had claimed Erma would never conceive a child, she twice proved him wrong. In 1955, Andrew was born, followed by Matthew three years later.

Bombeck's First House
The Bombecks outside first home, 1950s.

In 1955, the Bombecks moved to Centerville, the city where Bill taught, and settled on a street bustling with growing families. Phil Donahue, his wife and five children lived across the street. For the first time, she met other women who were as frustrated as she was and who admitted it.

One day in 1964, Erma walked into the office of Ron Ginger, the editor of the local paper, the Kettering-Oakwood Times. “I’d like to do a column for you,” she said. Simple honesty won the day. The editor fell for her charming intro and offered three dollars a week, and with a handshake — although neither she nor Ron Ginger realized it at the time — Erma Bombeck took a giant step on the road to fame and fortune.

From the beginning, professionalism marked Erma’s work. She instinctively knew what good column writing entailed. Hook ’em with the lead. Hold ’em with laughter. Exit with a quip they won’t forget. She turned out her columns in a cramped bedroom, the typewriter balanced on a plank suspended between a couple of cinder blocks.

Erma’s column had run for some time in the Kettering-Oakwood Times when Glenn Thompson, the Dayton Journal-Herald editor, spotted her work. Thompson offered to up her pay and her workload — $50 a week for two columns to run under her byline, if she would return to her old stomping ground. Erma could not imagine anything she wanted to do more.

Thompson sent a few of her columns to the Newsday Newspaper Syndicate and suggested they might be interested in syndicating Erma nationally. They were. Three weeks after her first column appeared in the Dayton Journal-Herald, Erma signed a short-term contract with Newsday. Thirty-eight papers were buying her 400-500 word columns by the end of the first year. Five years later “At Wit’s End” was a staple in 500.

In 1988, Erma moved her column to Universal Press Syndicate. Over the years, she was with a number of others. “It’s like deciding where to shop,” Erma said. “A lot of stores offer the same merchandise, but some display the items better or will take returns without a receipt. Syndicates vary in the number of features they take on; the number of new features launched each year; the size and quality of their sales staff and the degree of aggressiveness with which they merchandise their contributors.” Universal Press Syndicate distributed Erma’s column at the time of her death.

As more newspapers signed her on, though, Erma was asked to lecture in the new cities. The thousands of women (and a surprising number of men) who turned out to hear her speak, applauding her every poke at their lives, thrilled and overwhelmed her. Their laughter rolled in great waves through the auditorium and confirmed that at long last they had found someone who understood them.

At first, Erma delighted in the trips, in meeting her fans who affirmed her life and work. Later, she grew tired of the endless series of hotel rooms and of being away from her family. She eventually left the speakers’ circuit. But in 1966, it was new and exciting and she enjoyed every minute.

From the book, Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist by Lynn Hutner Colwell.
Used with permission of the author.

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