Who was Erma Bombeck? Dayton writer is focus of exhibit opening this week

Her ‘At Wit’s End’ column had an audience of 900 million.

When Kristina Schulz was a child growing up in Kettering, she vividly remembers reading the Journal Herald in the morning while she ate her Cheerios and waited for the school bus to arrive.

“I would read Erma Bombeck’s column and I thought she was so funny even though I was young,” recalls Schulz. “What she was writing reminded me of my homelife. My Mom loved reading her too. There would be clippings on our refrigerator of really good Erma columns.”

Schulz could never have guessed that someday she’d become intimately involved with the famous humorist in her role as the University of Dayton’s archivist and coordinator of special collections. At the moment, she’s excited about the special exhibition that opens this week at UD’s Roesch Library showcasing a variety of Erma memorabilia.

The free exhibition, entitled “Beyond the Byline: Erma Bombeck’s Story,” opens Thursday, Feb. 1 in the Stuart and Mimi Rose Gallery on the first floor of the library and runs through June 15.

Bombeck, a native of the Miami Valley and UD grad, was best known for tickling the fancy of folks throughout the country through her humorous syndicated column, “At Wit’s End.” At one time, the piece appeared in 900 newspapers around the country with an audience of 900 million. She also authored 15 books and was a regular contributor to “Good Morning America.” One of her books, “The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank,” was adapted into a television movie starring Carol Burnett. Bombeck also produced, “Maggie,” a sitcom based on her own life.

The new exhibit shares Bombeck’s personal correspondence, notes and photographs, gifted to the University by the Bombeck family. It offers insight into a woman who, in addition to being hilarious, was a feminist, activist, philanthropist, and pioneer. Bombeck was born in 1927 in Bellbrook and died due to complications following a kidney transplant. Her final column ran on April 17, 1996, five days before she died. (She always wrote her columns two weeks in advance. )

A special gift

Schulz says the Bombeck collection, which includes book manuscripts and 4,500 newspaper columns, arrived by truck in 2021. There were 89 boxes of material. The shipment also included Bombeck’s IBM Selectric II typewriter on which her famous quips were written! You’ll see the typewriter in the exhibit.

“Norma Born was the assistant to Erma and her husband, Bill, and she kept everything in really good order,” notes Schulz. “When we got it, we put things in acid-free folders and created a “finding aid” online so people can look through what we have. We did a sneak preview exhibit in 2022 for the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. It was very well received by participants and the public.”

The popular biennial workshop, slated for April 4-6 at UD, typically attracts more than 350 writers from around the country. It’s already sold out for this year, but organizers are offering a package entitled “Erma Home Schooling” which will include five keynotes live-streamed from the in-person workshop as well as four exclusive workshops.

Bombeck, who lived in Centerville when her children were young and she began writing her popular column, quickly became one of the Miami Valley’s most beloved celebrities.

Schulz says Bombeck’s writing career really got its start at UD when she wrote for “The University of Dayton News,” now the “Flyer News. She also wrote for the Rike’s department store employee newsletter.

Among Schulz’s favorite Erma items are the photos, including one in her scrapbook that pictures her at work at the Journal Herald soon after she got married. “Another one of my favorites is a letter she wrote to her son Andy when he was teaching overseas. It’s very sweet and funny and is signed ' Love, Mama.’”

Schulz is hoping people who visit the exhibit will realize that Erma Bombeck and her work are still relevant. “She is writing about things we still deal with – family, raising children,” she says. " I like the way Erma pokes fun at certain societal norms, like the impossibility of keeping your house perfectly clean. She was writing in the 1970′s and 80′s, but it’s still so true.

“There’s not one shred of evidence that her fame ever went to her head. Erma Bombeck was a very humble, hard working person and I would have loved to have been friends with her.”

Curating the exhibit

Beth Nevarez, who runs an historical consulting company in North Carolina, curated the new exhibit. At age 32, she admits she’d never heard of Erma Bombeck when she was asked to take on the assignment. “I looked her up and what I found was really interesting and funny so I was really excited to work on the project,” says Nevarez now. “What was most interesting is that she mostly wrote about being a mom and wife in traditional ways, but she was also a working mother herself and a very famous one at that. Despite all that, she wrote in a relatable way throughout her life.”

Nevarez, who came to Dayton three times while she was planning the exhibit, read Bombeck’s books and did a lot of additional background research.

“Some of my favorite artifacts are Erma’s grade school report cards and the correspondence featured in the exhibit,” she says. “That includes letters from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Texas Governor Ann Richards, actresses Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball, comedian Phyllis Diller, and celebrity chef Julia Child. Erma’s ‘Good Morning America’ jacket and mug are also fun artifacts that are included.”

Old-time Daytonians may recall that Erma was a neighbor of another illustrious Daytonian, TV host Phil Donahue, who was also ahead of his time. When she moved to Arizona, in the 1970s, Erma’s neighbor was Bill Keane, the “Family Circus” cartoonist.

What you’ll see

The exhibit, which includes 10 minutes of video clips from Bombeck’s life, is arranged by themes:

  • Erma’s Early Life and Career including her time at UD
  • Erma’s Writing : her process, inspiration, audience and variety of works
  • Erma in Context: women’s roles, women’s rights, and Erma’s work for the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • Erma’s fame, success and legacy.

Nevarez says visitors to the exhibit will learn that Bombeck wasn’t just witty in her professional life but also in personal writings that were never intended to be published.

“They’ll learn how she approached her writing, about her strict schedule,” Nevarez explains. “She would write ideas on scrap paper, on napkins. She would edit her work in margins with a pen.”

You’ll see Bombeck’s UD diploma, a commencement program, an article she wrote when she worked for Rike’s. And you’ll see some of her awards, her New York Times best-seller plaques as well as scripts from “Good Morning America. " One exhibit panel is about her husband and children and how she always stayed so devoted to them. There are fan letters about how much her work meant to readers.

“I would love for people who have never heard of Erma Bombeck to have the joy of learning about her,” concludes Nevarez. “Not only was she funny but she was a pioneer for her time. When she started, there weren’t very many female humor writers. She took something kind of mundane and made it really funny and gave permission to other women to laugh about the hard parts of those jobs. I hope the people who already do know who she is get a deeper understanding of her work and her process. She had a natural talent for taking what she observed in life and spinning it into something funny.”

How to go

What: “Beyond the Byline: Erma Bombeck’s Story”

Where: University of Dayton, Roesch Library

When: Feb. 1 - June 15. The library is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. On weekends, the hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s best to check Roesch Library’s building hours before visiting.

Admission: Free

Parking: Free, on campus. On weekdays, you will need a permit so look for the Visitor Center on College Park. On weekends, there is no pass required.

For more information: kschulz1@udayton.edu

More info

  • A free opening event will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8 at The Gathering Place, second floor of the Roesch Library. The evening will feature a humorous keynote address by Gina Barrea, distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut. A dessert reception will follow. RSVP by Feb. 2 to ensure your seat
  • Not able to join in person? A livestream option is available. Please RSVP to receive the link.

Want to learn more about Erma Bombeck?

  • Here is the link to the archival finding aid:


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