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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

Erma Bombeck

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

Yesterday marked the 22nd anniversary of the passing of an icon: humorist Erma Bombeck, and a great story about her came to mind. Awhile back, I ran into Fred Tatashore, Emmy-winning producer of the Dinah Shore Show, and he told me a wonderful Erma Bombeck anecdote.

"One night," he said, "Dinah had arranged for a small dinner party at her home in honor of Erma Bombeck, who was to appear on the show and whom Dinah absolutely adored. Show business royalty sat at Dinah's dinner table that night: Johnny Carson, William Holden, the James Stewarts, Cary Grant, big names who rarely socialized but who came out that night because they loved Erma.

"At one point," Fred continued, "Dinah saw Erma looking around the table at the other guests, leaned in to her and said, 'Well, Erma, how will your column begin tomorrow?' and, without missing a beat, Erma said, 'Last night, when I was having dinner with Cary Grant '"

When I heard that story of Erma's quick wit, I decided to join the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, based in Dayton. Must be pretty good, I thought, to have her name attached to it, so I drove across the country, from Los Angeles, California, to Dayton, Ohio, to attend the Workshop at U. Dayton, Erma's alma mater.

Although Erma herself began college life at Ohio U. in Athens, her writing was not praised, accepted, or encouraged. In fact, the guidance counselor there advised her to quit journalism and get a job as a secretary. Instead of following that advice, she enrolled at U. Dayton where her self-confidence about writing was restored and encouraged. She was invited to write for the school newspaper and it was here that Erma Bombeck heard three words from her English teacher, Brother Tom Price, words that would echo throughout her life and continue to inspire her. After reading one of her articles, Brother Tom Price told her, "You can write." His words gave Erma a necessary emotional push to continue, ultimately blessing this nation with her remarkable sense of humor.

The entire Bombeck family was at the kick-off event, and I met Erma's husband, Bill, of whom she had written so often. Keynote speaker was Jill Conner Browne, author of the Sweet Potato Queen books: SPQ's Book of Love; SPQ's Big Assed Cookbook, and a bunch of others. She showed up with her own entourage, the official Sweet Potato Queens, dressed in pink boas, pink hats, pink dresses, and Big Hair wigs. Some of them even wore tiaras. They laughed, stomped and shouted out whenever Jill said anything funny, which was most of the time. Their high-spirited humor carried the rest of us right along, laughing with them. By the way, they were all named Tammy. Erma would've had a great time that night.

One of my favorite Erma quotes is: "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, "I used everything you gave me."

She did share, with a grateful public, everything God gave her, enabling us to see the humor in life through her eyes.

Thankfully, the Workshop in her name was established at U. Dayton to encourage new writers, as Brother Tom Price once encouraged Erma with those three magic words: You can write.

Ohio has produced lots of other famous people: astronauts, inventors, generals, entertainers, sports stars, and more presidents than any other state except one (Virginia), but nobody was ever more beloved than Erma Bombeck.


© Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus" - April 23, 2018 column


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