Erma would have had a field day with this.
Aren’t you just pining to read the column she would have written about her former home being named to the National Register of Historic Places? The nomination for the house at 162 Cushwa Drive in Centerville refers to the home’s “historic integrity” as well as the neighborhood’s “repetitive rows” of “nearly identical ranch houses.”
Quipped Erma’s daughter Betsy, “My bedroom is a historical bedroom now.”
Once the laughter died down, the Bombeck family believes that the beloved humorist would have been deeply touched by this recognition of her place in American history.
“Writing about families and growing up in the suburbs, the house wasn’t just a house – it was her beat,” observed her son Matt, a writer who lives in Los Angeles. “I think it is appropriate to deem the house historic, if only to honor her.”
Erma’s husband, Bill Bombeck, initially responded with a hearty chuckle when asked how his late wife would have responded. And yet, he reflected, “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.”
The couple’s son Andy Bombeck, a retired teacher, said that 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, no Jumpee things, just your friends getting together and having fun or bugging our parents during the summer when we were bored.”
Matt Bombeck said the family is “feeling honored and old at the same time. I’m sure my mom would be mostly amused by it all. And my dad would be pleased that the ceiling beams he installed will be forever preserved in history. Let’s hope his craftsmanship holds up! Cushwa Drive was just a great street to grow up on — big families, lots of kids — and it hasn’t changed much, other than that the trees grew in.”
The nomination captures that moment in time through the words of the Bombecks’ equally famous neighbor, Phil Donahue: “At Erma Bombeck’s memorial service in 1996, Phil Donahue spoke about their beginning years on Cushwa Drive. ‘We would entertain each other in our homes. We all had the same house. It was a plat house — $15,500 – three bedrooms, two bathrooms and the fireplace was $700 extra… The Bombecks had beams in the ceiling. I mean real wood Early American beams, perfectly mitered. You kept looking for Martha Washington. Bill Bombeck made those beams all by himself. I envied those beams so much…’”
The nomination was the brainchild of Martha Boice, emeritus trustee of the Centerville-Washington Twp. Landmarks Foundation. When she moved to Washington Twp. In 1968, Boice was excited to learn that Bombeck was a nearby neighbor. “I always have loved Erma Bombeck,” she said.
Friends kidded her about the project, “You mean you’re trying to get a Huber home on the National Register?” The house qualifies for the distinction, she noted, because of “what she meant for the role of women and how it was changing in the 1960s. She just hit the heartstrings of American women.”
The home’s current owners, Roger and Tracy Reeb, helped with the nomination. It won’t change their lives much, other than the placement of National Historic Register plaque; Cushwa Drive won’t be invaded by tour buses. But the designation is meaningful to the couple, who bought the house in the early ‘90s when they had two young sons. Their purchase wasn’t influenced by the Bombeck connection; like Erma and Bill before them, they were looking for a good school system and a spacious back yard for their kids to play.
Over time, however, the Reebs have come to feel an affinity for the Bombecks. “My wife and I hold this house near and dear to our hearts,” Roger said. “We have spent countless hours in that back yard, having cookouts and watching our boys play soccer or football. It’s just ordinary family life – just like in Erma’s books.”
As an author and UD psychology professor, Reeb does much of his writing in the same Florida room where Erma wrote so many of her columns. A human rights activist who works on ending homelessness, Reeb appreciates the parallels between his life and Bombeck’s. “I’ve spent a large part of my career writing articles and books in the same room as Erma,” he said. “It’s inspiring. And she was a real human rights activist, fighting for women’s rights.”
He also sees similarities with the life of his wife Tracy: “Like Erma, she worked at home when she was raising her kids and then went back to work. Erma’s time in this house was a moment in history when the role of women was transitioning. Erma had a successful home and family life and yet she was so successful in her career, and she stood up for things that she believes in.”
The Bombeck House nomination, prepared by Columbus-based historical consultant Nathalie Wright, makes a compelling case for the Bombeck’s national cultural significance: “Erma Bombeck was an American popular culture icon of the late 20th century. Her rise to fame and fortune began with a modest weekly column in a small suburban newspaper, the Kettering-Oakwood Times. Working from her home, she ruminated on the societal pressures placed upon the mid-20th century housewife. Expectations of perfection were high, and she humorously pointed out the irrationality of it all.”
The nomination was well-prepared, according to Megan Rupnik, part of the National Register team for the Ohio History Connection. “I was so lucky to get this assignment,” she said. “It’s not every day you get to review a National Register request for someone who is famous and clearly loved by many Ohioans. She was one of the first women to talk about suburban living and housekeeping in the way that she did, and the house inspired a lot of her writing.”
The project also fits in with the agency’s Ohio Modern Initiative, designed to put more emphasis on Ohio’s more recent past.
That makes Betsy Bombeck feel just a tad better about her old bedroom’s historic designation. She’s in town next week to take part in the first major fundraiser for the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, an enduring part of her mother’s legacy. She’ll be appearing with best-selling author and actress Mary Lou Quinlan in a session called “A Mother’s Bond” after the March 31 performance of Quinlan’s one-woman show “The God Box: A Daughter’s Story.” All proceeds will go to the workshop.
She’s taking time out of her busy dual career as program manager of a crisis mental health facility in Phoenix as well as owner of the Bombeck Design Group, which remodels kitchens and bedrooms.
Why is she making the sacrifice? “They asked,” Betsy said with a chuckle. “I would do anything to keep that conference going. It’s a great writers’ workshop.”
As for her childhood home’s official historical significance? “My mother was a humble person,” she said. “This is a great honor. It’s amazing what occurred in that house. It’s the place where she began writing the ‘At Wit’s End’ column and where all those books began, right on the makeshift desk my father put together.”
In troubled times, she added, “You can’t do enough to honor a humorist.”
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