Sunday, April 02, 2000

Memories of the local report from Bombeck

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I kept expecting to look up and see her. And, indeed, there were glimpses.

        A manuscript: The Coach Who Played to Lose, by Erma Bombeck. Neatly typed, the pages showed a few of her own hand-written amendments. The boy was not “tagged” at first base. He was “thrown” out. The team did not play eight games, but five. She was not good by accident. She worked at it. This was the story of a Little League coach who let everybody play. Erma's kind of guy.

Erma Bombeck
        She didn't write about politicians, although she got fan mail from them. She wrote about her kids and her husband. The lawn and car pools. The dog. The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank was an account of life in the suburbs.

        Erma's family donated a green spiral notebook with an outline and the original manuscript for that book to the University of Dayton, her alma mater, along with pictures of Erma with Phyllis Diller in a nun's habit and the Pope (these were separate photographs), notes from Paul Newman and George Bush, a hat from Minnie Pearl, a key to the city of Evanston, Ill., more book manuscripts and 4,300 original columns — “things around Erma's desk,” said her husband, Bill, making the formal presentation Friday at the campus.

        Tangible signs of a life well lived.

        Her friends were there to pay tribute. And to work. They taught classes at the two-day writers' seminar surrounding the presentation. Art Buchwald had them rolling in the aisles. Super-agent Aaron Priest patiently advised Erma wannabes.

        Liz Carpenter, funny and feisty, was still trying to drum up support for the Equal Rights Amendment. White House Press Secretary during the Johnson years, she and Erma traveled the country, hoping to raise money and votes.

        “Once, Erma auctioned off her husband's underwear. Got a lot of money for it, too,” Ms. Carpenter said. “Some people didn't like Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem. But everybody loved Erma.”

        At the end of the writer's workshop, the Erma Bombeck Conference on Popular American Human, her friends sat around and told Erma stories. Family Circus cartoonist Bil Keane, a neighbor in Arizona where the Bombecks lived for the last 25 years of Erma's life, claims Erma told him the only reason she'd take up jogging was “to hear heavy breathing again”

        Ms. Carpenter says Erma helped get her a big advance on a book, “the most money I'd ever seen — that wasn't Confederate.” Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Mike Peters says Erma helped get him get syndicated.

Syndicated Communist
        Her son, Matt, says when he was little, “we had no idea what Mom did. We told everybody she was a syndicated Communist.”

        So, what did she do? A humorist? She was beyond funny.

        “A lot of columnists write to end up in the Congressional Record or at the Pulitzer committee's door,” wrote columnist Ellen Goodman. “Erma Bombeck went us all one better. Her words won her the permanent place of honor in American life: the refrigerator door.”

        Detroit Free Press columnist, Susan Ager, told a class in Dayton, “People want local news from their daily newspapers. What could be more local than what happens in our kitchens?” Or on our Little League mounds. Or in Loehmann's dressing room. Or in our back yards.

        “When the scholars gather hundreds of years from now to learn about us, they won't know it all if they don't read Erma,” said Phil Donahue at a memorial service in 1996. Erma Bombeck, who successfully and cheerfully battled breast cancer, died at age 69 from complications after a kidney transplant.

        Erma Harris, battling a cancer of her own, flew to Dayton from Sun City, Ariz., for this tribute to her only child. “Losing Erma was the hardest thing God ever asked me to do,” Mrs. Harris said. “I miss her something awful. We laughed so much.”

        Yes, we did. Erma let us all play.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at; call (513) 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.