Peggy Keener: Loved by all; a true American gem

Published 5:10 pm Friday, March 8, 2024

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Test. Who is this? Born in 1927. Wrote over four-thousand newspaper columns and fifteen books, most of which became bestsellers. The columns were read by thirty-million followers and were published in nine-hundred newspapers throughout America and Canada. The writer’s first name has four letters and begins with E.

If you said Erma Fiste, you are correct! Well, at least it was Fiste until she married Bill Bombeck. And now you know.

Born into a working class family in Bellbrook, Ohio, Erma’s father was a crane operator. She began elementary school in 1932, one year earlier than usual when it was discovered that she was an above excellent student. Her father died when she was nine. Later her mother married Albert Harris, a moving van owner. During those years, Erma studied tap dancing and singing, along with working for a local radio station.

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She began junior high in 1940 and began writing humorous columns for The Owl, the school paper. Two years later, she entered Park Vocational High School and started writing a serious column, often throwing in bits of humor. During that time she was hired by an Ohio newspaper, the Dayton Herald, as a copy girl, sharing this full time assignment with another girl. While still in high school, Erma wrote her first journalistic work, an interview with Shirley Temple. Her interviews went on to become newspaper features.

During the year following graduation, she sought out college scholarships, all the while working as a typist and stenographer, as well as writing obituaries for the Dayton Herald. Using her savings, she enrolled in Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in 1946. This did not prove fruitful as she failed most of her literary assignments on top of being rejected by the university newspaper. After the first semester, when her funds ran out, she quit.

Moving back home, Erma later enrolled in the University of Dayton. There a department store, Rike’s, gave her a job writing humorous columns for the company newspaper. Additionally she worked two part-time jobs—as a termite control accountant at an advertising agency and as a public-relations person at the local YMCA.

It was during this time that Erma hit it big when her English professor told her that she had great prospects as a writer. As a result she got a slot on the university student newspaper. After graduating in 1949 with an English degree, a grateful Erma became a lifelong supporter and trustee of the school that had given her her start.

That same year she did two monumental things: converted to Catholicism and married Bill Bombeck, a fellow student and WWII veteran even though she was the first to admit that marriage came with no guarantees. “If you want that,” she quipped, “go live with a car battery.” Bill went on to become an educator and school supervisor. Erma remained active in the church for the rest of her life. She also remained loyal to Bill for the rest of her life, admitting that she could never have had an affair because she didn’t have the underwear for it.

The Bombecks were told it was improbable that they would ever parent a child, so they adopted Betsy in 1953. Three years later, much to their delight, the Bombecks birthed a son. Two years later, another one. The family of five moved to Centerville, Ohio into a tract housing development. The Bombeck’s next door neighbor was Phil Donahue.

In 1964, after her last child started school, Bombeck once again began writing weekly columns for the Kettering-Oakwood Times. Her desk was in a cramped bedroom with a makeshift desk built from a wooden plank supported by two stacks of cinder blocks. She explained that her career began a bit late because she was “too old for a paper route and too young for Social Security.” The pay was $3 a column. A year later the Dayton Journal Herald signed her on for two 450-word columns twice a week. For these she was paid $50 each. After only three weeks, her articles went into national syndication in thirty-six U.S. newspapers under the title “At Wit’s End.”

By 1966, Erma was giving lectures, and her columns were being compiled and published by Doubleday. After a humorous appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Radio Show, she became his regular guest. Before long she was appearing in 900 newspapers nationwide to an audience of thirty million readers as well as regularly contributing to Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Redbook, McCall’s and Teen magazines. With all this added income she waved goodbye to Donahue, and the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to a lavish hacienda on a hilltop in Paradise Valley.

In the next three years McGraw-Hill published “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank” followed by a million-dollar contract for “If Life Is A Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” She also received a 700,000-copy advance for her next book, “Aunt Erma’s Cope Book.” The girl was on a huge roll!

Next on her rapid climb upward was a leap into the world of television where for eleven years Bombeck was a regular guest on ABC’s Good Morning America. There she offered advice for getting bubble gum out of one’s hair to what kind of person would go to a bra museum. Inspired by these programs, she next attempted a television pilot of her own on CBS. It was called, “The Grass Is Always Greener.” One episode featured an interview with Zsa Zsa Gabor who talked as she was splayed out on her own king-size bed, a family whose children were robots, a clutter therapist, and a garbologist who studied mankind through the garbage he created. In an episode called “I Am a Bag,” Erma even allowed herself to become a piece of airport luggage that traveled from a conveyor belt to the belly of the plane.

Of course her speaking engagements, TV appearances and political activism required frequent absences from home. But once she returned, Erma immediately set about preparing dinner and gathering up the dirty clothes. “Doing laundry,” she claimed, “keeps one humble.”

Some of her cherished quotes are:

“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.” “Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” “Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.” “Have you ever noticed that the first piece of luggage on the carousel never belongs to anyone?”

In 1978 Bombeck was involved in the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women, in particular the implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was strongly criticized for her participation by conservative groups, and some stores even withdrew her books.

She nonetheless remained a national treasure. The Tournament of Roses selected her as their grand marshal for the 97thRose Bowl Parade. The theme of the parade was “A Celebration of Laughter.”

As a young twenty-year-old, Erma was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an incurable, untreatable genetic condition. In addition, she survived breast cancer and a mastectomy. Her public never did know about her illnesses as she secretly endured daily dialysis.

After many years on a kidney waiting list she went public while awaiting a transplant. By then one kidney had failed completely and had to be removed while the other ceased to function. On April 3, 1996, she received a kidney transplant. Nineteen days later, at age 69, Erma Bombeck died of complications from the surgery.

A light went out in our world.