Sneak peek of Bombeck Collection speaks volumes about beloved humorist

Katie Jarrell, project archivist at the University of Dayton, looks over the Erma Bombeck Collection at the UD library. A photo of Bombeck is on the cover of the University of Dayton Magazine. The collection will be on display until October 23, 2022. MARSHALL GORBY \STAFF

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Katie Jarrell, project archivist at the University of Dayton, looks over the Erma Bombeck Collection at the UD library. A photo of Bombeck is on the cover of the University of Dayton Magazine. The collection will be on display until October 23, 2022. MARSHALL GORBY \STAFF

What would you say if someone volunteered to cart away and catalog your family’s mountain of memorabilia?

Matt Bombeck, the son of humorist Erma Bombeck and educator Bill Bombeck, knows the answer. Last spring, he watched as 78 boxes of his family artifacts departed a storage unit in Scottsdale, Arizona, bound for their permanent home in the Erma Bombeck Collection of the University of Dayton Archives.

“I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” Matt Bombeck recalled. “What do you do with all this stuff?”

For Matt Bombeck, the emotional weight of those memories is compounded by the burden of history. Throwing away that hand-scribbled note or heavily-marked-up column draft could be tantamount to tossing out the Rosetta Stone for future scholars hoping to learn more about 20th century America.

“We are so thrilled that UD wanted this material and that it found a good home,” said Matt Bombeck, a screenwriter, from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s so fitting, because mom had such fond memories of UD, and felt such a strong connection to her alma mater.”

Last April Matt Bombeck and his wife, Jackie, spent a week in the Scottsdale warehouse poring over the material that longtime Bombeck family assistant Norma Born had inventoried for UD archivist Kristina Schulz. The boxes contained original manuscripts, speeches, scripts and personal correspondence.

The collection has been called “completely irreplaceable” by rare book collector Ed Hoffman of Columbus, who specializes in Americana. “Erma Bombeck’s archive and papers are a unique and comprehensive collection representing the storied career of this enormously popular humorist, columnist and author,” Hoffman said.

A small but significant portion of the archive, “The Erma Bombeck Collection: A Sneak Preview” will be on display through Oct. 23 at UD’s Roesch Library, and a major exhibit is planned for 2024. Library officials extended the preview’s run to coincide with the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Oct. 20-22. The popular biennial workshop, originally slated for March, was postponed due to the pandemic.

Workshop founder Teri Rizvi said the extension is a meaningful gesture for workshop participants who have come to know and love Erma Bombeck.

“They’re true Erma fans and aficionados,” noted Rizvi, UD’s executive director of strategic communications.

Every workshop opens with a video of Erma Bombeck talking about the lightbulb moment when her UD professor, Brother Tom Price, uttered three inspirational words: “You can write.”

That clip sets the tone for the workshop, Rizvi said: “That is the spirit of supportiveness and encouragement that we are trying to bottle.”

By entrusting her alma mater with her archives, the Bombeck family hopes not only to preserve the historic artifacts, but also to attract a new generation of readers.

“Even though our world is very different today, I really do believe that a lot of her writing still resonates,” Matt Bombeck said. “Things have come full circle in the sense of our trying to have the perfect family and to have it all. Her column was an outlet for families and for moms to say to themselves, ‘Your kids are as messed up as mine are.’”

Katie Jarrell, project archivist for the Erma Bombeck Collection, is among the converts. She was hired by Schulz to help with the processing of the collection, which is being preserved and digitized with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Bombeck family.

“My mom was always clipping out Erma’s columns,” Jarrell said. “She was ecstatic when I got this job.”

She has now become an admirer in her own right, marveling over Erma Bombeck’s passionate advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment. “She did make a difference with her work for the ERA,” Jarrell said, “but she didn’t turn her back on housewives, ever. She showed women you didn’t have to give up motherhood and a family in order to have a career.”

During Erma Bombeck’s heyday, her column, “At Wit’s End,” was syndicated in 900 newspapers, with an estimated readership of 30 million. The exhibit includes one of Erma Bombeck’s electric typewriters as well as the letter that started it all — Dayton Journal-Herald editor Glenn Thompson urging Thomas Dorsey of Newsday Inc. to syndicate his newly minted columnist. Among the millions of suburban moms, Thompson presciently wrote, “she is the one who can write about it with brilliance and good humor.”

The collection also offers a more personal glimpse of the famous columnist, including family photos and letters to her husband and children. “It’s clear they had a very close relationship that lives on after her death,” Jarrell said.

Most of the personal mementos in the collection were saved by his father, Matt Bombeck said: “My dad saved everything — every birthday card, every letter we would write. I have his third-grade report card from St. Anthony School, if anyone is interested. My dad was the more sentimental one, while mom was more forward-looking.”

Organizing such a vast collection ended up being as rewarding as it was daunting. “It shows how close she and my dad were, and how important family was to her,” Matt Bombeck said.

Jarrell is particularly grateful to Matt Bombeck and Born for sifting through materials that stretch 80 linear feet. “Matt did an archivist’s job, and that makes it so much easier on our end,” Jarrell said. “It’s very clear how much he loves his mother and that he wants her legacy to live on in UD Archives.”


How to go

What: The Erma Bombeck Collection: A Sneak Preview

When: The free exhibit will be on display now through Oct. 23

Where: the Stuart and Mimi Rose Gallery in the lobby of the University of Dayton’s Roesch Library

Hours: The exhibit is open during library hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and noon to 6 p.m. weekends.

How to access the extended Erma Bombeck Collection: Scholars and members of the public can view the extended collection by making an appointment at archives@udayton.edu or at 937-229-4256.

How to register: The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is now open for registration at go.udayton.edu/erma