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Erma Bombeck

Beyond the Byline

By Teri Rizvi

Beth Nevarez loves discovering the story behind the story.

A public historian who spent days combing through the Erma Bombeck Collection at the University of Dayton, Nevarez quickly realized the dual nature of the trailblazing humorist.

“She wrote so much about traditional housewives and mothers, but she was a working mother and a famous one at that,” said Nevarez in a phone interview from her Wilson, North Carolina, home. “She had experiences vastly different from the stay-at-home mom. She traveled widely and appeared on television. You could look at her writing as funny, but she also called out the standards placed on women and how ridiculous a lot of them were.”

Working with Design Dimension, Inc., Nevarez curated "Beyond the Byline: Erma Bombeck’s Story," an interactive exhibit that will be on display Feb. 1-June 15 in the Stuart and Mimi Rose Gallery in the University of Dayton’s Roesch Library. It is free and open to the public.

Best-selling author, humorist and feminist scholar Gina Barreca will keynote the opening event at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8. Matt Bombeck, a Los Angeles screenwriter who devoted countless hours to working with University of Dayton archivists to bring his mother’s papers to her alma mater, also will offer remarks. The event is free, but space is limited. It also will be live streamed on the University of Dayton's YouTube channel to a wider audience of Bombeck aficionados, writers and scholars. Registration is required for both the in-person and online audiences.

The exhibit follows the trajectory of Bombeck’s life from a shy child to housewife writer to household-name celebrity. Nevarez breaks the display into themes, such as Bombeck’s writing process, place in the world of humor, and impact on women’s rights. Artifacts include the galley proof for her first book, At Wit’s End, a jacket and coffee mug from her days on “Good Morning America,” an Italian translation of one of her dozen books, correspondence with fans and celebrities, and her faithful electric IBM typewriter that she used to tap out 4,500 columns.

From the exhibit, visitors will learn that Bombeck wrote her ideas on whatever was available — scrap paper in her purse, airline napkins, hotel stationery and yellow legal pads. Her inspiration? “It’s my life. I’m on every page,” one panel reads. “I spend 90 percent of my time living scripts and 10 percent writing them,” reads another pull-out quote.

Nevarez found Bombeck to be authentic, unpretentious and hilarious, and she brings that spirit to life in the display’s nine cases that feature Bombeck’s original manuscripts, columns, handwritten notes, speeches, articles, photographs and memorabilia from her personal collection, which was donated by the Bombeck family to her alma mater in December 2020.

What would Nevarez like visitors to take away from the exhibit? “For people already familiar with Erma, I’d love for them to gain a deeper understanding, maybe think more critically about what she did for feminism,” she said. “For the more casual viewers, just the joy of learning who she was and her continued relevancy.”

Pregnant with her first child, Nevarez finds Bombeck’s work still funny and relatable in our times: “It’s not every day you get to laugh out loud in the archives when you’re doing research.”

For information on the exhibit and to register for the opening event, visit

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder and director of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she serves as executive director of strategic communications. More than 350 writers from around the country will have the opportunity to view the exhibit during the April 4-6 workshop.

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