An Uncommon Wit Appreciation: It's a sad day for fans of Erma Bombeck, 'The Socrates of the Ironing Board,' who is dead at age 69. She always left us laughing, even as her own health deteriorated.

April 23, 1996|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF Staff writer Linell Smith contributed to this story.

Erma Bombeck happily chucked her job in 1953 to stay home full-time with her first child. But she soon discovered that being a housewife wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

"I was really bored, cleaning the same stupid stove again and again," she told a reporter for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Gazette more than 30 years later. "There was an isolation to it that I cannot begin to describe."

Not exactly.

She became the voice of an entire generation of American women describing it pretty darned well. Her syndicated newspaper column, "At Wit's End," transformed the drudgery of housework and the trials of raising children into the rich stuff of humor, assuring millions of housewives that they weren't alone.

Some of them cried after hearing that "The Socrates of the Ironing Board," as a Baltimore author once labeled her, died yesterday in San Francisco of complications following a kidney transplant earlier this month. She was 69.

In 1964, she started out writing columns for her hometown newspaper in Centerville, Ohio, for three bucks a pop. When she died, her column was appearing in more than 600 newspapers with more than 1 million readers. And that was down from the pinnacle of her popularity, when more than 900 papers regularly carried her columns.

Never had anyone captured in such a hilarious way the routine of American home life, especially in suburbia. Her columns were about lost socks, late dinners, forgetful husbands, messy, noisy children, PTAs, car pooling, Tupperware parties and the mysteries of green fuzz in the refrigerator. American women understood exactly what she was talking about.

Erma Bombeck was, well, one of them. So they laughed. They bought the papers that carried her columns. They bought her books, 13 of them, with titles like "I Lost Everything in the Postnatal Depression," "The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank," "If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?" They watched her on national television for more than a decade.

And they made her wealthy -- a millionaire many times over with an annual income topping $500,000. Yet she always portrayed herself as a wife and mother who did her own laundry and dusting.

"If I didn't do my own housework, then I have no business writing about it," she once said. "I spend 90 percent of my time living scripts and 10 percent writing them."

Such was her popularity and persona that more than 9,000 people showed up to hear her speak in Kansas City -- in an auditorium that seated only 3,500. And when a genetic ailment caused her kidneys to fail several years ago, more than 30 of her loyal fans offered to donate one to her.

Debbie Barnhardt, a retired bookkeeper living in Bowie, burst into tears when she learned of Mrs. Bombeck's death yesterday.

"She was like a friend of the family," said Mrs. Barnhardt, a longtime reader. "She wrote about everyday things that happened to all of us and made them funny and witty. Yet underneath it all was a real wisdom."

Mrs. Bombeck was born Feb. 21, 1927, in Dayton, Ohio. When she was 9, her father died and her mother got a factory job, before remarrying two years later.

In school, she was described as having been shy and reticent. But in junior high school, she began writing a humor column for the school newspaper. In high school, she got a part-time job as a copy girl with the evening Dayton Herald. It was there she met Bill Bombeck, a World War II veteran and sportswriter for morning Dayton Journal.

They married in 1949, after both had worked their ways through the University of Dayton. Her husband became a teacher, but Mrs. Bombeck continued to work as a reporter for the Herald until the couple adopted a daughter in 1953. Six months later she became pregnant with the first of two sons.

She had a droll, sometimes bizarre sense of humor that was ideally suited for writing about everyday life. In later years, she mixed in some serious writing, but it was often laced with the humorist's eye for detail.

Dealing with illness

One of her books, "I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise," evolved from a talk with a counselor at an Arizona camp for children with cancer. And even though the 1989 work dealt with the surprising humor of children so ill, the interviews and the writing clearly had a profound effect on her.

It also, no doubt, helped her cope with her own encounter with cancer, which led to a mastectomy in 1992.

In a 1993 interview on ABC-TV's "20/20", she talked about her husband's reaction the first time he saw her after the surgery: "I really looked [at Bill] while he was looking at me, and I didn't see pity and I didn't see shock; I didn't see horror. I just saw love. That's what I wanted to see, and you can do amazing things with that."

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