Growing up in Dayton left an indelible imprint on Bill and Erma Bombeck – and they, in turn, now leave an enduring legacy in their hometown.
Bill Bombeck died Jan. 12 in Phoenix, Ariz., and he soon will be buried alongside his wife in Dayton’s historic Woodland Cemetery.
But the couple will live on in the hearts of many friends in the Dayton area and in the University of Dayton’s biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, the only one in the country dedicated to both humor and human interest writing.
As their son Andy observed, “The Dayton community meant everything to my parents. It’s where they grew up, went to school, raised a family, and began their careers. They always kept their connection to Dayton because that’s where everything started. They never forgot where they came from and knew how special those times were in our lives.”
They live on, too, in the hearts of countless Americans who didn’t know them, but feel as if they did. The Bombecks were America’s First Family of the refrigerator door. They were the opposite of royalty, privilege and entitlement – beloved not because of any illusion of perfection but because they embodied the imperfections, joys and struggles of the average American family.
A supportive, helpful spouse
None of that would have been possible without Bill Bombeck, an enthusiastic supporter of Erma’s writing in an era when many husbands discouraged their wives from pursuing careers.
“Bill was her cheerleader,” recalled former neighbor Phil Donahue. “Her success would not have been possible without Bill’s standing there, applauding her work. Erma’s success only made their marriage stronger. What a wonderful team they made, and they were wonderful, wonderful parents.”
In the 1960s the Bombecks were raising their three children – Betsy, Andy and Matt – at 162 Cushwa Drive in Centerville. Donahue described the neighborhood at Erma’s memorial service in 1996: “We all had the same house. It was a plat house — $15,500 – three bedrooms, two bathrooms and the fireplace was $700 extra. Everybody had Early American décor.”
The Bombecks always threw the best parties, Donahue recalled: “They had a Halloween party every year and you had to come in a costume. I wore a space suit borrowed from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and Erma thought I was a cheat. All the neighbors would come to the house, say nothing, and try to figure out who everyone was. It was very interesting.”
In 2015, Bill Bombeck told the Dayton Daily News, “We were part of a movement of young families buying affordable houses. All our neighbors were in the same boat, with three or four kids, and Erma was no longer able to work full-time as a reporter. So that house on Cushwa Drive was the start of her career as a columnist.”
That career, starting from columns she wrote for Dayton newspapers, eventually grew to see her circulated in more than 900 U.S. newspapers by the late 1970s, and become the author of more than a dozen best-selling books.
A magical time for the family
Andy Bombeck, a writer and retired teacher, described those early years as a magical time for the family: “Most of my favorite memories growing up in Dayton are playing football, basketball and baseball, usually in the back yard along with my friends on Cushwa Drive. It set a good, solid foundation for the rest of our lives.”
Erma died April 22, 1996, following complications from a kidney transplant. Teri Rizvi, UD’s executive director of strategic communications, founded the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop four years later as a one-time event. It proved so successful it is held every other year, attracting nationally-known humorists including Donahue, Nancy Cartwright, Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor. The workshop – taking place this year April 5-7 — invariably sells out within several hours after registration opens.
“The Bombeck name opened doors,” said longtime volunteer Bob Daley of Centerville, who helped to launch the workshop in 2000. “It enabled us to attract people like Donahue and Art Buchwald. They all said yes because they had such high regard for Erma and Bill.”
Members of the Bombeck family — including Bill and the couple’s children and grandchildren – have attended the workshop since its inception.
“The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is one of the most important legacies my parents left behind,” Andy said. “My mom had a strong feeling about encouraging others like her to write. I think because she lacked much of that encouragement growing up. It makes sense she would lend her name to something as important, and the University of Dayton was the perfect place.”
Bigger than he could’ve imagined
Bill once described the workshop’s success as “beyond his wildest dreams.” Rizvi said he has only himself to blame: “Through the workshop, Bill helped UD nurture and sustain Erma’s legacy as one of the greatest humorists of our times. This workshop, in Erma’s name, was Bill’s legacy, too.”
Tracy Beckerman, a nationally syndicated humor columnist and author from New Jersey, might have described the spirit — and popularity — of the workshop best. “I don’t know of any other writers’ conference where the famous and the unknown sit side by side in mutual respect. That’s Erma,” she said after the 2012 workshop.
Bill Bombeck also served as one of the honorary co-chairs of UD’s Call to Lead fundraising and image-building campaign, which ended in 2002 after receiving a record 56,000 gifts and raising more than $150 million. The family gave $1 million during that campaign, leading to the renaming of the child care center to the Bombeck Family Learning Center, which, Rizvi said, “reflects Bill’s calling as an educator and Erma’s vocation as a chronicler of family life.”
To meet the Bombeck family was to immediately sense their Midwestern roots, Rizvi said: “They were your neighbors next door. Anyone who met Erma and Bill immediately noticed their genuine unpretentiousness, friendliness and work ethic — traits we pride ourselves on in the Midwest. Their children grew up to reflect those same values.”
Although the Bombecks moved to Arizona in 1971, they remained close to their friends in Dayton, including Jeanne Leist of Kettering and her late husband Tom, who graduated with Bill from Chaminade High School in 1945. “They never put on airs, ever,” Leist said. “And Bill was so funny, too – just a very fun, pleasant guy.”
Leist and Erma and mutual friend Shirley Fleischman of Oakwood would go on girls’ shopping weekends with Erma in places such as Los Angeles and Chicago or on couples’ ski weekends.
Fame never went to their heads
Even after the Bombecks achieved international fame, Bill maintained the frugality from his Depression-era upbringing in Dayton. Fleischman said the friends often joked, “Will he ever get rid of that brown sweater? He has had it since high school.”
Apparently he never did. The invitation for Bill’s 80th birthday party included a photo of him as an infant wearing a sweater with the caption: “And yes, he still has the sweater.”
Fleischman and Leist agreed that Bombeck never felt threatened by his wife’s success. “He was just very comfortable in his own skin,” Leist said. “He was very proud of Erma, and rightly so.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 28 at Messinger Mortuary in Scottsdale, Ariz. No date has been set for graveside services in Dayton.
Betsy Bombeck is proud to be what her father always called her: “my favorite daughter.”
She’s also proud of the kindness and generosity her father showed throughout his life. “He was so thoughtful, caring, giving and concerned,” Betsy said. “He would see a newspaper article about someone in need, and he would call up and see what he could do anonymously to help.”
It’s a spirit nurtured during his formative years in Dayton – and it accounts for Bill’s and Erma’s most important legacy, the close-knit, down-to-earth family they left behind. “They just had such great friendships,” Betsy said. “It was a small town where people knew each other and cared about each other and supported each other. It was their home, their safe place, and it makes my brothers and me who we are because we grew up here.”
ERMA BOMBECK STORY ON STAGE
The Human Race Theatre Company is presenting a one-woman show, "Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End," April 19-May 23. Tickets are on sale now. All seats are $25 and can be ordered at www.humanracetheatre.org or 937-228-3630.