Bill Bombeck – Dayton-born educator and widower of beloved humorist Erma Bombeck – died Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz., following a bout with pneumonia. He was 90.
“He was such a wonderful man, so giving and so fair,” said his son, Andy Bombeck. “He was the perfect match for my mom.”
Erma transformed the family’s foibles and adventures into the poetry of everyday life, with her husband and children serving as the good-natured foil for much of her humor. At the height of her popularity, 900 newspapers syndicated her column to an audience of 30 million readers.
Bombeck never anticipated such worldwide fame when he married Erma Fiste at the Church of the Resurrection in Dayton in 1949. He served as a Dayton teacher, principal and administrator from 1950 until 1971.
It was, in many ways, a typical suburban life. The Bombecks raised their three children – Betsy, Andy and Matt — in a ranch house at 162 Cushwa Dr. in Centerville. In 2015, the home was named to the National Register of Historic Places — much to the family’s pride and amusement.
“We were part of a movement of young families buying affordable houses,” Bombeck told the Dayton Daily News at the time. “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.”
Andy Bombeck, a writer and retired teacher, said growing up on Cushwa Drive was the best and most exciting time of their lives: “My mom’s career was just starting to take off and we were surrounded by great neighbors and good friends. For us kids, life was simple. We always knew who, what, and where we were going to play every day. In retrospect, it was magical! No play dates, just your friends getting together and having fun or bugging our parents during the summer when we were bored.”
Born in Dayton in 1927, Bill Bombeck graduated from St. Anthony Grade School and Chaminade High School. He met his future wife while working as a copy boy for the Dayton Journal; Erma was a copy girl for the Dayton Herald. The two kept up a flourishing correspondence while Bombeck served in the Army in Korea in 1945 and 1946.
They began dating seriously when Bombeck returned from his service in World War II and both attended the University of Dayton. (Erma graduated in 1949, Bill in 1950.)
As Bill began his career as an educator, Erma started writing a column, “Operation Dustrag,” in 1952 for the Dayton Journal Herald. She stopped writing the column after the arrival of her daughter, Betsy, the following year. In 1964, she began writing a humorous column, “Zone 59,” for the Kettering-Oakwood Times. In 1965 Journal-Herald editor Glenn Thompson offered her the princely sum $50 a week for two columns. Three weeks later, her column, “At Wit’s End,” was picked up nationally by the Newsday Newspaper Syndicate.
Published in 1967, her first book – also titled “At Wit’s End” – was the first of many best-selling collections of columns.
Erma remained humble about her meteoric rise to fame. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she often told friends.
The couple moved to Arizona in 1971, but they never forgot their roots – or their close lifelong friends – in Dayton. “Success never changed them,” friends often said. “They never changed.”
Bombeck appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America from 1975 until 1986, recording commentaries and interviews from her new home in Arizona.
Her last column appeared April 17, 1996 – five days before her death following complications from a kidney transplant.
Bombeck paid tribute to his wife in the 1996 volume “Forever, Erma,” a collection of her best-loved columns. Throughout her long illness, Erma remained “unbelievably optimistic,” Bombeck wrote. “I have met astronauts, war heroes, firefighters and police officers, but I have never met anyone with more courage than Erma.”
Teri Rizvi forged a friendship with Bombeck when she founded the Erma Bombeck Workshop in 2000.
“Bill was a gentle man filled with warmth and wonderful sense of humor,” she said. “I cherished his friendship.”
The workshop — intended as a one-time event to honor Erma’s legacy — proved so successful that it is held every other year, attracting nationally known humorists including Phil Donahue, Nancy Cartwright, Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor. The workshop invariably sells out within several hours after registration opens.
Ever since its inception, members of the Bombeck family have attended the workshop, including Bill and the couple’s children and grandchildren.
“Through the workshop, Bill helped UD nurture and sustain Erma’s legacy as one of the greatest humorists of our times,” Rizvi said. “This workshop, in Erma’s legacy, is part of Bill’s legacy, too.”
Bombeck also served as one of the honorary co-chairs of UD’s Call to Lead fundraising and image-building campaign in 2002, which received a record 56,000 gifts and raised 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.
Bombeck is survived by his daughter Betsy of Phoenix, a contractor; his son Andy, also of Phoenix, and his wife Shari and their son Michael; and his son Matt, of Los Angeles, and his wife Jackie and daughter Eva.
Bombeck will be buried alongside Erma at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton. Arrangements are pending.