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Sunday Journal: Meeting Erma Bombeck before she was Erma Bombeck

In 1963 I was an eager 20-something newspaper reporter in search of a Pulitzer, and had just taken a job at a respected weekly newspaper in suburban Dayton, Ohio.

One of the backbones of any weekly newspaper is the neighborhood "news" submitted from part-time correspondents, items such as who attended Johnny's 9th birthday party and what church auxiliary was giving a potluck supper.

Some correspondents were fairly decent writers, but most were totally unfamiliar with newspaper reporting. The Associated Press stylebook was not on their nightstand.

Consequently, reporters were given the correspondents' submissions to edit. It was not a task we relished. Many were written in longhand, and even those few that were typed were filled with errors. Often it was easier just to use the submitted copy as notes and rewrite the entire column, a time-consuming process.

To make matters worse, correspondents were paid by the column inch and they didn't take kindly to the massive cuts of their copy that were inevitable. Our editor took sadistic pleasure in handing out the columns at random.

One week he tossed a column on my desk and said, "Here, edit this one. It's from a woman in Centerville (Ohio) who wants to write a weekly column for us. Tell me what you think."

Great, another neighborhood Hemingway. Probably scribbled.

Instead I saw before me a neatly typed manuscript.

I started to read the column, editing pencil at the ready.

I read some more.

I put the copy pencil down.

I kept on reading. I was enthralled. It was hilarious. And with the exception of a few typesetting marks, it required no editing.

I put the column down and looked up at my editor, who had a silly grin on his face.

"Wow," I said, "she's good, really good."

"I know," he said. "We're going to hire her."

Her name was Erma Bombeck. And this was just the beginning.

For the year or so she wrote for our Kettering-Oakwood Times, reporters fought for the job of editing her column just to be the first to read it. One of the K-O Times' subscribers was the editor of the daily Dayton Journal Herald. Bombeck was known to him because she had worked there as a teenage copygirl and had done a little writing. After reading her columns in the weekly, it wasn't long before he hired her.

Success was inevitable. At one point Bombeck's column, "At Wit's End," appeared in more than 600 newspapers in the United States. Her bestselling books, including If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and A Marriage Made in Heaven: Or Too Tired for an Affair, sold millions of copies. Readers ate up her one-liners: "If a man watches three football games in a row he should be declared legally dead" . . . "I've exercised with women so thin that buzzards followed them to their cars."

She died in April 1996 from kidney disease at age 69.

• • •

Through the years I have met many people who were fans of Erma Bombeck and they typically ask me what she was like in person.

I tell them that she was like her writing: warm, witty and charming. She was perhaps the original working moms blogger.

I have never forgotten one particularly moving column she wrote for the old weekly. It was about the day she sent her youngest child off to school.

She confessed that she had been so eager to get her last child in school she would have "mailed him in" if possible.

But when "that great big yellow bus swallowed up her small child," she felt sadness. She then went on to describe many of the tender and hilarious events that had occurred during his early childhood.

She concluded by writing that when afternoon came and she watched her child leaving the school bus, "That yellow bus looked a lot smaller, or maybe it was just that my child was now a lot bigger."

Years later I was watching Bombeck on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked her what her favorite column was. She said it was the one about sending her last child to school.

John E. Condron is retired from publishing and lives in Citrus Hills, where he is a volunteer and vice president of Citrus Memorial Hospital Auxiliary.

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Sunday Journal: Meeting Erma Bombeck before she was Erma Bombeck 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 5:31am]

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