Erma Bombeck nation: 18 years after her death, 'Bomburbia' lives on in hearts and minds

DAYTON, Ohio - Eighteen years after the death of Erma Bombeck, the nation of Bomburbia lives.

Its national celebration, the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop , takes place every two Aprils at her alma mater, the University of Dayton . It's where a standard-issue Midwestern postwar wife and mother discovered that she could write.

In April, a thriving population of more than 300 of her fans and emulators convened at the eighth annual gathering in her name to draw inspiration from her unique touch that transformed how American women saw themselves.

“Erma really in many ways taught me to be a little braver than I might otherwise would have been,” said none other than legendary television talk-show host Phil Donahue . He was once Bombeck’s neighbor on Cushwa Drive in Centerville. Donahue gave the opening-night address at the workshop, with Bombeck’s three children seated at a table of honor.

WATCH: Phil Donahue talks about his relationship with Erma Bombeck (WDTN-TV)

“Much of Erma’s success,” Donahue said in an interview, “has to do with her courage in busting through the veneer of pretense and traditional definition of motherhood as sacred and something that is beloved and something that really should not ever be criticized, as reinforced by the church, how blessed you were to have these children.

“Erma came along and said in varying ways in her columns: I want to sell my children. And she wound up on refrigerator doors all over the world.”

Daughter of Dayton

At her peak , Bombeck’s column, “At Wit’s End,” which she wrote three times a week, was published in hundreds of newspapers across the country and overseas.

Of the Top 10 bestselling books of the 1970s, two of them are by Bombeck. She regularly delivered commentary on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which called her readership Bomburbia.

Dayton thoroughly embraces Bombeck as its native daughter. Today, a state of Ohio landmark plaque (pictured above, courtesy of UD) on the University of Dayton campus honors her, and a boundary street of the university is known as Erma Bombeck Avenue.

In the Tower of Babel that is today’s Internet age, Bombeck’s enduring reach is testament to her touch with the universal frustrations of running a middle-class suburban household of growing children. But while close to 90 percent of the workshop attendees are female, men appreciate Bombeck, too.

“I came because this is where the humor writers are,” said writer Norm Cowie of New Lenox, Ill. “This is where people work on their humor and their writing, and it’s a blast.”

Comedy writer Ed Toolis signed up for the workshop to get ideas on how to move his sketch writing forward.

“It’s a good collection of knowledgeable people,” he said.

But for women, especially those who toil quietly and only dream of publishing one day, the story of Erma Bombeck gives them hope. “I just write for myself right now,” said Sarah Curry of Madisonville, Ky., a real estate broker. “But when I saw that this workshop was going on, I just decided that I needed to be here.”

Writer Janine V. Talbot came to Dayton from Saco, Maine.

“One day, I was doing some Internet searching, and I typed in, ‘I want to be the next Erma Bombeck,’ and the first thing that popped up was this workshop.”

Still an inspiration

After last month’s workshop, writer Kate Mayer of Newtown, Conn., described the devastation in her little town after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and of her own resulting struggle of “trying to get my funny back.”

During the Dayton workshop, she wrote, “I learned this above all: The line between tragedy and comedy does exist, and while laughing in the face of any horror is nearly impossible, the only way through the tears and darkness is with laughter and light.”

As part of his address to the workshop last month, Donahue showed clips of Bombeck’s frequent appearances on his talk show; her comic timing, honed to a razor’s edge, came off as effortless.

In one clip, Donahue remarks, “You look good,” and Bombeck rolls her eyes and stands, letting the pleats of her full skirt fall past her knees. “Oh, please,” she replies, “the last person to see me in a pleated skirt went blind.”

Bombeck wrote her funny column through her mastectomy after breast cancer and through dialysis four times daily. She died in April 1996, and Donahue delivered one of the eulogies. Four years later, her children donated her papers to the University of Dayton, where a teacher had once encouraged the young Bombeck with the simple words, “You can write!”

To commemorate the donation of Bombeck’s papers in 2000, the university hosted a writers’ workshop that was so popular, it became a regular feature. The 2014 edition sold out its 300 spaces in 12 hours.

When there was no digital age

Bombeck was a creature of her media environment, dominated then by newspapers and television, and she no doubt would have seen the humor in the workshop sessions that push beyond the legacy

outlets: “Self-Publishing is the New Black” and “How to Blog Your Way to a Book Deal.” But in general, most of the workshop discussions were about the concerns of every writer: telling the truth, staying focused, connecting through storytelling.

Throughout the workshop weekend, Bombeck’s daughter Betsy Bombeck accepted hugs from attendees with aplomb, accustomed to sharing her mother with the world.

“She used to say that she was just in the right place at the right time,” Betsy Bombeck said. “Also, she had the right personality for it. She was not afraid to try anything.”

“Writing was her passion,” Bombeck’s daughter said, “and she wrote what being a mother was really like. It wasn’t ‘The Donna Reed Show.’ It wasn’t ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ Life just wasn’t like that. She was willing to say, ‘Here’s the reality.’ ”

Betsy Bombeck said that devotion to finding the humor in the difficult realities of motherhood is the foundation of her mother’s enduring popularity.

“It’s been 18 years that she’s been gone, and she is still relevant. She is still read and appreciated. She’ll never been out of the light. She’s a classic American humorist.”

More from Bomburbia

Connect with WCPO Contributor Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker

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