College Years


Graduating from high school in 1944 and determined to build a college fund, Erma assumed two full-time jobs. After three years as a copygirl, the Dayton Journal-Herald (the two papers had merged) hired her as a full-time writer. The job relieved her of the menial labor she had been performing, but there was little opportunity to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. She spent most of the stint writing obituaries.

1944 Journal Herald Staff
The Journal Herald staff in 1944. Erma is in the lower left corner.

After a year of working night and day, her savings account held enough to launch her college career. Although she could have stayed in Dayton, she chose instead to begin experiencing life on her own at Ohio University in Athens, 137 miles from home.

Although Erma had more real-world working experience than most people her age, the first semester of college proved a disaster. In high school, her writing had been praised. She had been told she could write, yet she barely passed first semester freshman composition at the university. Hoping to work for the school newspaper, which enjoyed an excellent reputation, she submitted several articles that were all rejected.

Erma wondered, “If I can’t write, what am I going to do with my life?” She felt defeated. For the first time in her life, her naturally sunny nature took a vacation. For most students, college marks the best years of their lives. For Erma, it meant little but struggle.

Fueled by an intense desire to prove herself, Erma enrolled at the University of Dayton, a private, medium-sized four-year Catholic college. She continued to struggle financially, but found a writing outlet when she tackled a job with Rike’s department store, where she joked about clearance sales, the lunch menu and even shoplifting in their employee newsletter.

Erma Bombeck, 1949
Erma Bombeck’s 1949 yearbook photo.

During her sophomore year at Dayton, Erma finally found someone who believed in her talent and restored some of her shattered self-confidence. Brother Tom Price had read some articles she had produced for the school newspaper, The University of Dayton News, and asked her to write for the university’s magazine, The Exponent. At night, when she returned from work, she’d sit at the typewriter and crank out the copy. Psychology and philosophy courses expanded her understanding of the people she observed and gave her writing more depth and sensitivity.

One day, after reading one of her articles, Brother Tom Price turned to Erma and said the three words that would sustain her for the rest of her career. “You can write,” he said, “you can write.”

Erma graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949.

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

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