Thursday, February 28, 2002

Cyber museum

For fans of Erma Bombeck

        Although Erma Bombeck had about 31 million readers, she seemed to speak to each of us separately. She was funny. Consistently, reliably funny for 30 years. Even better, she gave us permission to be imperfect. “Seize the moment,” she wrote. “Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”

        I miss Erma.

        Now, we have people who want to crunch our abs and give us buns of steel. Martha Stewart terrorizes us with glue guns and dried weeds, making us feel like slackers if we don't make our own toothpaste. “My second favorite household chore is ironing,” Erma told us. “My first is hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”

        Because she did not tackle “serious” subjects, such as politics and major league sports, it took a while — maybe as much as a whole generation — to notice that she wrote about everything that really matters.

        “A lot of columnists write to end up in the Congressional Record or at the Pulitzer committee's door,” writes 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.”

A generation's voice

        She didn't write about politicians, although they were among her most ardent fans. She wrote about her kids and her husband. “In general,” Erma confided to readers in about 900 newspapers, “my children refused to eat anything that hadn't danced on TV.” Her book, The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, captured middle-class flight to the suburbs as authentically as The Great Gatsby portrayed spoiled rich people.

        After Erma's death in 1996, her family donated photos, original book manuscripts and 4,300 original columns — “things around Erma's desk,” said her husband, Bill — to the University of Dayton, her alma mater. And the university has made a gift of these things to us. In honor of what would have been her 75th birthday, this month the Erma Bombeck Online Museum opened.

        It is a remarkable debut. At, you can hear her voice, you can see 45 photographs, including wedding pictures, a shopping trip on Rodeo Drive with Phyllis Diller and an audience with Pope John Paul II. Erma's biography by Lynn Hutner Colwell is generously excerpted.

Clinging to typewriter

        And the plan is eventually to add an archive of Erma's columns and her own voice from her Good Morning, America commentaries. “We are trying very hard to include not just her writings, but Erma herself,” says UD's Tim Bete.

        Erma herself — who was 37 when she wrote her first column — probably wouldn't have been able to navigate the site. She clung determinedly to her IBM Selectric typewriter. But a new computerized generation might just stumble into this “museum.”

        “I used to describe humorists as a band of pied pipers dancing and singing down the Yellow Brick Road ignoring all the human misery about them,” she told a UD class in 1982. “That's not really true. We don't ignore human misery. On some days it becomes unbearable. We don't ignore it. We just rise above it and try to put it in some perspective.”

        I miss Erma.

        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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