Late columnist Erma Bombeck’s work lives on

I was unloading the car I’d rented when my neighbor asked where I’d gone. “The University of Dayton,” I told her, explaining that the university had received a treasure trove from Erma Bombeck’s family for their archives.

“Who?” my neighbor asked.

“Erma Bombeck.”

“The name sounds familiar…” she said, trying to place the name.

Erma has been gone for 28 years. My neighbor is in her 30s, so I guess I understand why she might not remember Erma. I was only 20 years old when she passed, and I admit that I never read her syndicated newspaper column until I discovered her work in the library. She published 15 books, six of which sit on my living room shelves. She is a writer I greatly admire.

One of Erma Bombeck’s famous quotes is, “When humor goes, there goes civilization.” Humor may not be gone, but it has definitely changed since Erma died in 1996.

Erma’s humor has heart. And that heart she brought to the page is sorely needed in the world today. The “humor” that circulates social and popular media now has become predominantly biting and sarcastic. Today’s “humor” has become a tool to widen the rifts of society. Sarcasm is not humor. It is rooted in meanness. It’s from the Greek word “sarkazein” which means to “tear flesh” or “gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.”

How many times have you heard or read a wisecrack that was followed by “just kidding!” or “I’m joking!”? Why must your jokes be at someone else’s expense? I’m not a fan of teasing. People who use sarcasm to sneak in a hard truth are passive-aggressive, not funny. They’re simply sidestepping a vulnerable conversation that desperately needs to be had.

When I found Erma’s work at the library in my 20s, her writing welcomed me. I laughed because I saw myself in what she wrote and that was OK. Her humor doesn’t prompt shame. It fosters camaraderie. I was in on the joke, not the butt of it. Erma’s readers always belonged.

As a young woman figuring out what my life would look like, I desperately wanted to get it right. Erma’s columns felt like she had opened the front door of her home and welcomed me in with an arm around my shoulders. Her words offered the belonging I so craved.

We’re in this world together, and Erma Bombeck knew what that meant.

The world needs to know and celebrate the work of Erma Bombeck. Her columns may have been syndicated from 1965-1996, but it is still there for you … for us. In the library and on the internet. We have to put the heart back in humor if this civilization is going to have any chance. The archives at the University of Dayton will carry Erma’s torch for the next generation to discover and keep civilization moving forward in good humor.


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