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Virtual Museum Celebrates Erma Bombeck

Erma Bombeck made people laugh at their foibles, put words to their lives.

For most of her career, Erma Bombeck wrote using an IBM Selectric typewriter. She liked to see the paper in front of her as she crafted each column. When her son, Matt, tried to get her to use a computer, the printer jammed. "See, I told you so," she said. "These things never work."

While Bombeck avoided using computers, computers are making her life accessible to fans around the world. After the Bombeck family announced that they would donate Erma's papers and artifacts to her alma mater, the University of Dayton began sharing part of the collection via the Internet. contains 48 photographs, including Erma at age 9 in a tap-dancing outfit, at a meeting of President Carter's Advisory Council for Women, shopping with Phyllis Diller on Rodeo Drive and talking with Pope John Paul II. Samples of Erma's writing in the museum include the note cards she used to make remarks when she received an honorary degree from UD in 1981, her typewritten remarks from UD's 1982 writers' workshop and eight columns from when she was a student at the University of Dayton. More than 25 audio and video clips reside in the museum. They include Erma describing how a UD English professor, Brother Tom Price, S.M., encouraged her to write, and memories shared by Erma's family and friends, such as Phil Donahue, Bil Keane, Mike Peters and Liz Carpenter, among others. There is even an audio clip of Matt Bombeck telling the story of how he tried to get his mother to use a computer.

While Erma Bombeck is best known for her newspaper column which celebrated the extraordinary in the ordinary and chronicled life's absurdities, the "Maggie" sitcom she created showed her versatility as a writer. Erma's syndicated column was carried by 700 newspapers prior to her death from kidney disease in 1996.

"Maggie," was about an ordinary family from Dayton, Ohio (where Erma grew up), and included a son who hadn't been seen since he'd entered the bathroom when he hit puberty. The show starred Doris Roberts, who later won an Emmy for her role in "Everybody Loves Raymond."

"I was a housewife and mother, too, so it was easy for me to come up with story ideas," said Karyl Miller, Emmy award-winning writer-producer who was the executive story consultant for the "Maggie" sitcom. "Working with Erma was wonderful. It was like having a girlfriend at work. Erma wasn't Hollywood, she was a housewife."

ABC ordered 13 episodes of "Maggie," which aired in late 1981 and early 1982. The show ran for eight weeks before it was canceled.

"Erma was so disappointed," said Miller. "She said 'Maggie' was her one and only sitcom, whereas the other 'Maggie' writers would just go on to work on some other series -- which was true. The show's timeslot was moved around a lot, so no viewers could find us. That's death to a new show."

Seven of the "Maggie" episodes are included in the online museum and can be viewed in their entirety.

Erma Bombeck graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949 with a degree in English and never forgot that she got her start as a writer at UD. She credited the University of Dayton with preparing her for life and work, for making her believe she could write. The University of Dayton holds the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop ( every other year to teach and encourage humor and human interest writers. The next workshop will be spring 2004.

You can visit the museum at

Tim Bete is co-director of Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, an award-winning humor columnist and e-marketing manager at the University of Dayton.

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