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Meet the Woman who Made the World Laugh

By Teri Rizvi

The University of Dayton has redesigned and expanded its online Erma Bombeck museum, which celebrates the life and work of one of America’s greatest humorists.

A repository for scholars, humorists, journalists, authors, essayists and bloggers, the Erma Bombeck Collection features all things Erma — from family photographs and biographical book excerpts to Good Morning America clips and Maggie sitcom episodes.

Searching for a bibliography of Bombeck’s writing, including her books, introductions to books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, columns and student writings at the University of Dayton? It’s here — along with her eighth-grade report card and the original marketing brochure for her syndicated column, which described her as a “fresh comic discovery.”

“It’s our hope that the museum will not just celebrate the life and legacy of my mom and her contributions to popular American humor, but expand her interest to a new generation of writers," said Matt Bombeck, Erma’s son and a Los Angeles screenwriter.


New additions to the collection include:

* A recently discovered hourlong radio interview between Bombeck and veteran Cincinnati journalist Alice Hornbaker for “The Writer’s Voice,” a subsidiary of Writer’s Digest magazine. Read interview here and listen.

* A newly digitized television program, An Evening With Erma’s Friends, moderated by former WHIO-TV anchor Donna Jordan and produced by Glenn Walters, retired media executive in residence at the University of Dayton.  The piece aired on WHIO-TV, ThinkTV and Flyer TV in 2000 as part of the inaugural Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop on campus.

* A documentary, Erma Bombeck: A Legacy of Laughter, narrated by Phil Donahue and produced by ThinkTV for public television markets around the nation.

* New Good Morning America clips, including Bombeck’s hysterical shopping spree with Phyllis Diller on Rodeo Drive. “Why do I get the feeling today is not going to be a religious experience?” she quipped when Diller showed up dressed as a nun.

* A CBS Sunday Morning With Charles Osgood tribute to America’s best-loved and funniest mom.

* The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Bombeck family’s suburban home in Centerville, Ohio. Typing on an IBM Selectric, Bombeck wrote her early columns in a cramped bedroom on a makeshift desk — a plank between cinder blocks. Phil Donahue, who became a legend in his own right as a TV talk show host, lived across the street. The Bombecks’ modest 1959 ranch house was named to the national register in 2015.

Future additions to the collection will include Lynn Hutner Colwell’s interview tapes with Bombeck for the book, Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist, as well as a sampling of digitized columns and appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and daytime variety shows. The collection features excerpts from Colwell’s book, the only authorized biography of Bombeck’s life.


Thanks to the University of Dayton’s efforts to keep her legacy alive as well as the staging of a new one-woman play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, in cities across the country, Bombeck’s work is seeing a resurgence of interest. A copy of the play is part of the collection, thanks to playwrights Allison and Margaret Engel.

Bombeck, who graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949, wrote with hilarity and wit. At the height of her popularity, 900 newspapers syndicated her column to an audience of 30 million people. She died April 22, 1996, following complications from a kidney transplant.

“Erma’s work is funny, poignant and universal,” said Teri Rizvi, founder and director of the biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which sells out within hours. “She continues to inspire writers today with her take on the absurdities of family life.”

The collection is cared for by the Bombeck family, the University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections and Wright State University Special Collections and Archives.

Under the direction of University of Dayton archivist Jennifer Brancato, it was created as a capstone project for Heather Webb, graduate student at Wright State University, and updated by Madeleine Eiting, an intern for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Tim Bete, former director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, launched the virtual museum in 2002. 

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