The Idle American: When humor goes, there goes civilization

Erma Bombeck once said: When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.

Upon considering a column topic, I often muse, “How would Erma handle it?”

Sometimes, selfless decisions are made without fanfare, yet come to light years later. We’re running short on noble decisions of late, yet those made decades ago by two prominent Arizonans–both affectionately “adopted”–are noteworthy.

Senator John McCain’s recent death resulted in much reflection on his life of service to his country, including his imprisonment in Viet Nam for more than five years. When captors realized his prominence, they saw great public relations value in releasing him soon after imprisonment. He immediately balked, indicating that he would wait his turn. And he did, “staying put” as a prisoner for four more years of punishment and degradation.

Late columnist Erma Bombeck–a “favorite daughter” of Arizona during the final 25 years of her life–made a similar decision a quarter-century later, not from a prison cell, but from a hospital bed….


Gravely ill with a kidney disease, she had the opportunity to move “up the list” for a transplant, thanks to her celebrity status.

She’d have no part of it, vowing to wait her turn. When that time came, months later, she was too ill to survive the surgery when a kidney implant was attempted. One of the world’s wittiest persons, her columns brightened millions of lives. She died in 1996 at age 69, still meeting column deadlines until shortly before her death.

Erma’s death robbed readers of smiles. She could coax more grins from a column of 400 words or so than anyone I’ve ever read. And those “grins” often erupted into belly laughs that left us making apparel adjustments, wiping away joyful tears, or–in the case of women—“unsmudging” their mascara….

Don Newbury

Several million Americans looked forward to her syndicated columns that, at the height of her popularity, appeared in 700 newspapers in the US and Canada. Revealing the “funny side” of down-home experiences, she also turned out 15 books, most of them best-sellers, and all of them with clever titles. When her typewriter keystrokes ended in 1996, she had written more than 4,000 columns and had an estimated 30 million readers.

Some 50 years ago, I sent a “thank you” letter for the humor she delivered with each column. A couple of weeks later, I was surprised to receive a note that she no doubt had personally written. It was typed on copy paper, and signed “Erma,” the signature scribbled with an editor’s pencil. The page’s jagged edges were proof enough that it was torn from a roll of paper fed into her typewriter (pretty much paper towel quality).

Even her short note produced grins. It read, “I apologize for being so late writing to thank you for your letter,” she said. “I’m nearly as far behind with my correspondence as I am with my laundry.” Those few words were “Erma to the core.”…


   Upon considering a column topic, I often muse, “How would Erma handle it?” (I know; her garment hem would go untouched if it depended on me to emulate her work.) For example, with Senator John McCain’s death following Aretha Franklin’s passing just nine days earlier, I think Erma would have found ways to lighten national mourning with touches of humor that in no way denigrated their great lives.

Writers and broadcasters covered both funerals in great detail. Somehow, I think Erma would have had a tongue-in-cheek comment about Aretha’s funeral procession that included 120 pink Cadillacs (inspired by her hit song, “Freeway of Love”). “Hmmm,” the columnist might have noted. “Maybe that explains the ‘CLOSED TODAY’ signs on the doors of 120 Mary Kay distributors.”

“What-Would-Erma-Have-Written?” topics are at center stage every two years at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Featuring top writers, it is held at the University of Dayton, honoring the memory of one of the all-time great writers. Her columns and books are chock full of wonderful quotes. A favorite: “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”…


Dr. Newbury is a former educator who “commits speeches” round about. Comments/inquiries to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: Twitter: @donnewbury. Facebook: don newbury.

Don Newbury is the author of the humorous, inspirational, and autobiographical When the Porch Light’s On. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.



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  • “I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”

    Erma was a classy lady – and I’ve enjoyed many of her books. My favorite was, “One size fits all is an incomplete sentence.” (forgive any misquotation – I’m horrible from memory)

    I’ve saved the quote you provided about talent, and reminded myself that the Lord’s patience with giving us gifts we don’t use may not last as long as we’d like. Have to get back to my own work. If she could while ill, I can, too.

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