Personal Essays By Erma Bombeck

Erma Bombeck

Erma Bombeck

BornErma Louise Fiste
(1927-02-21)February 21, 1927
Bellbrook, Ohio, U.S.
DiedApril 22, 1996(1996-04-22) (aged 69)
San Francisco, California, U.S.
OccupationHumorist, syndicated columnist, writer
CitizenshipUnited States
EducationUniversity of Dayton
Years active1965 to 1996
SpouseBill Bombeck
ChildrenBetsy, Andrew, Matthew

Erma Louise Bombeck (née Fiste; February 21, 1927 – April 22, 1996) was an American humorist who achieved great popularity for her newspaper column that described suburban home life from the mid-1960s until the late 1990s.[1][2] Bombeck also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. From 1965 to 1996, Erma Bombeck wrote over 4,000 newspaper columns, using broad and sometimes eloquent humor, chronicling the ordinary life of a midwestern suburban housewife. By the 1970s, her columns were read twice-weekly by 30 million readers of the 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.[3]

Early life[edit]

Erma Fiste was born in Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working-class family, and was raised in Dayton. Her parents were Erma (née Haines) and Cassius Edwin Fiste, who was the city crane operator.[4] Young Erma lived with her elder paternal half-sister, Thelma. She began elementary school one year earlier than usual for her age, in 1932, and became an excellent student and an avid reader. She particularly enjoyed the popular humor writers of the time. After Erma's father died in 1936, she moved, with her mother, into her grandmother's home. In 1938 her mother remarried, to Albert Harris (a moving van owner). Erma practiced tap dance and singing, and was hired by a local radio station for a children's revue for eight years.[citation needed]

Formative years[edit]

In 1940 Erma entered Emerson Junior High School, and began writing a humorous column for its newspaper, The Owl. In 1942, Bombeck entered Parker (now Patterson) Vocational High School, where she wrote a serious column, mixing in bits of humor. In 1942, she began to work at the Dayton Herald as a copygirl, sharing her full-time assignment with a girlfriend. In 1943, for her first journalistic work, Erma interviewed Shirley Temple, who visited Dayton, and the interview became a newspaper feature.

Erma completed high school in 1944. Then, to earn a college scholarship fund, she worked for a year as a typist and stenographer, for the Dayton Herald and several other companies, and did minor journalistic assignments (obituaries, etc.) for the Dayton Herald as well. Using the money she earned, Erma enrolled in Ohio University at Athens, Ohio, in 1946. However, she failed most of her literary assignments and was rejected for the university newspaper. She left after one semester, when her funds ran out.

Erma later enrolled in the University of Dayton, a Catholic college. She lived in her family home and worked at Rike's Store, a department store, where she wrote humorous material for the company newsletter. In addition, she worked two part-time jobs - as a termite control accountant at an advertising agency[clarification needed] and as a public relations person at the local YMCA.[5] While in college, her English professor, Bro. Tom Price, commented to Erma about her great prospects as a writer, and she began to write for the university student publication, The Exponent. She graduated in 1949 with a degree in English, and became a lifelong active contact for the University — helping financially and participating personally — and became a lifetime trustee of the institution in 1987. In 1949, she converted to Catholicism, from the United Brethren church, and married Bill Bombeck, a former fellow student of the University of Dayton, who was a veteran of the World War IIKorean front. His subsequent profession would be that of educator and school supervisor. Bombeck remained active in the church the rest of her life.[citation needed]

Housewife column[edit]

Housewife (1954–1964)[edit]

The Bombecks were told by doctors that having a child was improbable, so they adopted a girl, Betsy, in 1953. Erma decided to become a full-time housewife, and relinquished her career as a journalist. During 1954, Erma nevertheless wrote a series of humorous columns in the Dayton Shopping News.

Despite the former difficult diagnoses, Erma Bombeck gave birth to a son, Andrew, in 1955. Away from her previous journalistic career, Bombeck initiated an intense period of homemaking, which lasted 10 years, and had her second son, Matthew, in 1958. The Bombeck family moved in 1959 to Centerville, Ohio, into a tract housing development, and were neighbors to the young Phil Donahue.[6] This home was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.[6]

"At Wit's End" (1965)[edit]

In 1964 Erma Bombeck resumed her writing career for the local Kettering-Oakwood Times, with weekly columns which yielded $3 each. She wrote in her small bedroom. In 1965 the Dayton Journal Herald requested new humorous columns as well, and Bombeck agreed to write two weekly 450-word columns for $50. After three weeks, the articles went into national syndication through the Newsday Newspaper Syndicate, into 36 major U.S. newspapers, with three weekly columns under the title "At Wit's End".

Bombeck quickly became a popular humorist nationwide. Beginning in 1966, she began doing lectures in the various cities where her columns appeared. In 1967, her newspaper columns were compiled and published by Doubleday, under the title of At Wit's End. And after a humorous appearance on Arthur Godfrey's radio show, she became a regular radio guest on the show.

Diversified production[edit]

Success (1970s)[edit]

Aaron Priest, a Doubleday representative, became Bombeck's loyal agent. By 1969, 500 U.S. newspapers featured her "At Wit's End" columns, and she was also writing for Good Housekeeping Magazine, Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Redbook, McCall's, and even Teen magazine. Bombeck and her family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to a lavish hacienda on a hilltop in Paradise Valley.

By 1978, 900 U.S. newspapers were publishing Bombeck's column.

McGraw-Hill (1976)[edit]

In 1976 McGraw-Hill published Bombeck's The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, which became a best-seller. In 1978, Bombeck arranged both a million-dollar contract for her fifth book, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and a 700,000-copy advance for her subsequent book, Aunt Erma's Cope Book (1979).


At the invitation of television producer Bob Shanks, Bombeck participated in ABC's Good Morning America from 1975 until 1986. She began doing brief commentaries which were recorded at Phoenix, and eventually did both gag segments and important interviews.

For several years, Bombeck was occupied with multiple writing and TV projects. In 1978, she failed with the television pilot of The Grass is Always Greener on CBS. In 1981,[7] then Bombeck wrote and produced her own show, the also unsuccessful Maggie, for ABC. It aired for just four months (eight episodes) to poor reviews; nevertheless the show meant that Bombeck was becoming quickly overworked, returning from Los Angeles to Phoenix only during weekends. Bombeck was offered a second sitcom attempt but she declined.

Equal Rights Amendment (1978)[edit]

In 1978 Bombeck was involved in the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women, particularly for the final implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment, with the ERA America organization's support. Bombeck was strongly criticized for this by conservative figures, and some U.S. stores reacted by removing her books.[citation needed] In 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed by the United States Congress to the states. Congress specified a seven-year period for ratification. Under Article V of the United States Constitution, ratification by at least three-fourths of the states is necessary, but at the end of the seven-year period, only 35 states had ratified, or three less than the required three-fourths. Of the 35 states that ratified proposed amendment, 5 of them rescinded their ratifications prior to the expiration of the deadline. Bombeck expressed dismay over this development.[citation needed].

Great popularity (1980s)[edit]

By 1985 Erma Bombeck's three weekly columns were being published by 900 newspapers in the United States and Canada, and were also being anthologized into a series of best-selling books. She was also making twice-weekly Good Morning America appearances. Bombeck belonged to the American Academy of Humor Columnists, along with other famous personalities. During the 1980s, Bombeck's annual earnings ranged from $500,000 to $1 million a year. She was the grand marshal for the 97th Tournament of Roses Parade held on January 1, 1986. The parade theme was "A Celebration of Laughter."[8]


Erma Bombeck was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (an incurable, untreatable genetic disease) when she was 20 years old. She survived breast cancer and mastectomy, and kept secret the fact that she had kidney disease, enduring daily dialysis. She went public with her condition in 1993. On a waiting list for transplant for years, one kidney had to be removed, and the remaining one ceased to function. On April 3, 1996, she received a kidney transplant. Erma Bombeck died on April 22, 1996, aged 69, from complications of the operation.[2] Her remains are interred in the Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio, under a large rock from the Phoenix desert.[citation needed]


  • At Wit's End, Doubleday, 1967.
  • Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own, Doubleday, 1971. Written with Bil Keane.
  • I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, Doubleday, 1974.
  • The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, McGraw-Hill, 1978.
  • Aunt Erma's Cope Book, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
  • Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, 1983.
  • Family — The Ties that Bind ... and Gag!, 1987.
  • I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer, 1989. American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor in 1990. (Profits from the publication of this book were donated to a group of health-related organizations.)
  • When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home, 1991.
  • A Marriage Made in Heaven ... or Too Tired For an Affair, 1993
  • All I Know About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room, ISBN 0060177888HarperCollins 1995
  • Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America's Favorite Humorist, Andrew McMeel Publishing, 1996


The Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop started in 2000 at the University of Dayton as a one-time event to commemorate the Bombeck family's gift of Erma's papers to the university. The event proved so popular that it has been held every other year since then. The two-day, three-night workshop includes keynote speakers and breakout sessions on the topics of humor writing, human interest writing, the publishing process, marketing for authors and blogging, among other areas. Past keynote speakers have included Art Buchwald, Nancy Cartwright, Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor, Mike Peters, Bil Keane, Phil Donahue and others. More than 350 writers from around the country attend each workshop, which is held on the University of Dayton campus.

A Chinese translation of one of her works, "Father's Love" is included as one of the sixty oral reading passages in the Putonghua Proficiency Test.[9]

The personal involvement of the Bombeck family, which spans three generations, makes the event memorable and sets it apart from the myriad other writers' workshops around the nation.

In 2004, University of Dayton alumnus Ralph Hamberg and his wife, Cindy, gave a $100,000 gift to start a workshop endowment fund in memory of her cousin, Brother Tom Price, S.M. This University of Dayton English professor first told Erma "three little words" of encouragement, "You can write!" [10] The endowment helps keep the workshop affordable for writers. In addition, the University of Dayton's Alumni Association underwrites the cost of scholarships that allow University of Dayton students to attend for free.

This effort to honor humorist Erma Bombeck's legacy goes beyond the writers' workshop. The workshop has spawned a blog;[11] an online museum;[12] a documentary produced by ThinkTV and distributed nationally through American Public Television; an international writing competition hosted by the Washington-Centerville Public Library; an Ohio historical marker on the University of Dayton's campus; a monthly e-newsletter; a Facebook page; a Twitter feed; and an active online discussion group.

In 2006, the workshop created the world's longest Mad Lib.[13] In 2010, "CBS Sunday Morning With Charles Osgood" [14] aired a Mother's Day tribute to Erma Bombeck, using the workshop as a backdrop. In 2013, AAA Journeys magazine[15] traced Dayton’s literary heritage — and pointed to the University of Dayton’s efforts to keep Erma Bombeck’s legacy alive through a workshop in her name. In 2014, Parade[16] featured a series of pieces about the workshop and Erma Bombeck's enduring appeal.

The workshop was first created by Teri Rizvi and Bob Daley. Tim Bete directed the workshop from 2004 to 2008. Matt Dewald directed it from 2010-2012. Today, Teri Rizvi and Annette Taylor serve as co-directors.

The Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop is believed to be the only national workshop for humor writers.[citation needed]


External links[edit]

Ohio Women's Hall of Fame


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  • Hintz, Joy AliceJoy Alice Hintz
  • Macelwane, GeraldineGeraldine Macelwane
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  • Olshansky, RenaRena Olshansky
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  • Plummer, MaxineMaxine Plummer
  • Reilly, JeanJean Reilly
  • Riel, PaulinePauline Riel
Bombeck's house in Centerville, now a historic site
  1. ^Full Biography of Dayton University - original sources from Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist by Lynn Hutner Colwell
  2. ^ abOliver, Myrna - Erma Bombeck, Columnist, Dies After Transplant; Writers: The homemaker-turned-humor author and speaker succumbs to complications at age 69. Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1996
  3. ^"Erma Bombeck Biography: A Life Of Humor". Essortment. Archived from the original on November 24, 2013. Retrieved September 30, 2014. 
  4. ^"Bombeck, Erma (1927 - 1996), Humorists". Retrieved 15 October 2014. 
  5. ^Erma Bombeck: A Life in Humor by Susan Edwards
  6. ^ abNews Staff - Bombeck home on Nat’l Register of Historic Places WHIO, March 25, 2015
  7. ^"The "Maggie" Sitcom". Archived from the original on 5 May 2016. Retrieved 3 July 2016. 
  8. ^Leading Lady : Humorist Erma Bombeck to Be Marshal of Rose Parade. Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1985
  9. ^Putonghua Shuiping Ceshi Gangyao. 2004. Beijing. pp.352-353. ISBN 7-100-03996-7
  10. ^"Erma Bombeck - Writers´ Workshop". Erma Bombeck. 
  11. ^
  12. ^"". 
  13. ^URLwire. "World's Longest Mad Lib Online at Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop". 
  14. ^"News : A Mothers Day Tribute : University of Dayton, Ohio". 
  15. ^"News: Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop Featured in National Magazine : University of Dayton, Ohio". 
  16. ^Berk, Dr. Nancy. "Writers and Industry Professionals Remember Erma Bombeck". 

Wednesday November 29, 2017

Bombeck Writing Competition

Can you craft a short essay that either sparks laughter or touches the heart in the way that Erma Bombeck wrote?

Writers around the world are encouraged to capture the essence of Bombeck’s work by submitting an original essay in the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, sponsored by Washington-Centerville Public Library in conjunction with the University of Dayton. The contest opens at 8 a.m. Monday, Dec. 4, and entries will be accepted until 8 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 3. The entry fee is $15.

The competition, held every two years, pays tribute to Dayton-based writer Erma Bombeck, one of the greatest humorists of contemporary times and arguably the University of Dayton’s most famous graduate.

Winners receive $500, free registration to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton — and bragging rights.

The Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, April 5-7 on the University campus, is co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Entries should be 450 words or less. Essays submitted may not have been previously published, either in print or online. New this year: the local category will include all of Ohio. The global category will include the rest of the world.

One entry per person will be accepted, and previous contest winners are encouraged to apply. All winning essays will be published on the library’s website, as well as in the Dayton Daily News and the workshop’s printed program. Those receiving honorable mentions will receive certificates.

Entries will be blind judged by a panel of authors, syndicated columnists and experienced writers. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry and award-winning novelist and short story writer Bonnie Jo Campbell will serve as the finalist judges for the humor and human interest categories, respectively.

Winners will be announced at the end of February with a celebration event set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at the Centerville Library. The awards ceremony is free and open to the public.

“The quality of these essays has shot through the roof over the years,” said Debe Dockins, Erma Bombeck Writing Competition coordinator. “Having Bonnie Jo Campbell and Dave Barry as our final judges escalates the excitement factor to a new level, and I am excited to get started.”

For the 2016 competition, 563 writers from around the world entered previously unpublished essays in humor and human interest categories — roughly 253,350 words. To read the 2016 winning entries, visit the library’s current winners page.

For complete writing competition guidelines, the online entry form or more information, visit the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition website.

- Teri Rizvi, executive director of strategic communications


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