ERMA’S HUMOR MADE US REALIZE THE FRAILTY OF LIFE.
The following article appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of the University of Dayton Quarterly. As Phil Donahue eulogized, “We shall never see the likes of her again. She was real and she brought us down to earth — gently, generously and with brilliant humor. When the scholars gather hundreds of years from now to learn about us, they can’t know it all if they don’t read Erma.”
The University of Dayton joined the nation in mourning the death of Erma Fiste Bombeck ’49, its most famous graduate and the country’s top chronicler of family life.
Bombeck, 69, died April 22 at a hospital in San Francisco after earlier undergoing a kidney transplant. For three decades she chronicled life’s absurdities in a syndicated column carried by hundreds of newspapers. “She was twice as funny in conversation as in her columns and books,” said Brother Raymond L. Fitz, S.M., president and a personal friend since the early 1980s. “Her humor always made us, in some sense, realize the frailty of our human life. At the same time, she could raise criticisms of institutions (in society). She had a good sense of social justice and the role of women in society.”
In a 1991 interview with the University of Dayton Quarterly, Bombeck spoke of the encouragement Brother Tom Price, S.M., gave her. Price was the faculty adviser to The Exponent, the college literary magazine. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you contribute some humor to this?’ That was like a breath of fresh air,” she recalled. “No one wanted to write humor at that time…It was tricky for one thing. To make fun of someone or something takes a pretty thick skin. I started to write humor for The Exponent, and one day he said to me three magic words: ‘You can write.’ It’s all I needed as an impetus to keep going, and it sustained me for a long time. “Here’s a man who reads Jane Eyre, who knows all these things. This man knows what he’s talking about. I believed him. You need someone whom you respect to tell you something like that.”
As a UD student, she converted to Catholicism. She gave back to UD in numerous ways, through both time and financial contributions. She served on the board of trustees from 1984 to 1987; co-chaired with her husband the National Alumni Challenge Campaign during the University’s capital campaign in the 1980s; spoke at events on campus, including a writers workshop; and participated in advertising and direct-mail campaigns to help broaden the University’s image and recruit students. In 1981, she received an honorary doctoral degree from UD. She was named an honorary trustee in 1988.
Friends at UD remember her as a witty, funny person who was serious about her studies. “Everybody knew everybody on campus, but Erma didn’t run around much with the crowd because she was more serious about school. It’s unusual to think about her being serious, but she was serious about school,” recalled Ellie Kurtz ’47, former director of the Kennedy Union. “She came back to campus in 1982 to speak at our writers workshop. We had a dinner with her after her talk, and she was a laugh a minute. The students just loved it.”
Edwin (Sandy) King ’49, professor emeritus, jokingly said that a sarcastic barb from Bombeck helped him rethink his career. “We had classes together and were on the newspaper together,” he said. “I used to kid her about the fact that she changed my journalistic career into being a teacher. I wrote a column on veterans’ affairs that was so boring, she thought it was a riot. ‘Sandy, you are really a great writer,’ she said.”
Bette Rogge Morse ’44, an adjunct communication professor and former local television personality, called Bombeck “the greatest humorist of our time.” She remembered Bombeck’s delight when she sent her a box of Esther Price chocolates, a reminder of her days as a Dayton housewife in the 1960s when she began writing a humor column about life in the suburbs. Bombeck told her, “I savored every bite and ate the whole box.” Bombeck’s death “is such a shock, I can’t believe it,” Morse said. “She’ll be missed. She was a dear, dear person.”
— Teri Rizvi
(Teri Rizvi ’90 founded the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton in 2000.)