(Teri Rizvi, director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, offered these reflections of Bill Bombeck’s life at his funeral in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Jan. 28, 2018.)
Mostly, though, I’m privileged and blessed to call Bill a friend and a mentor.
Betsy, Andy, Matt, Jackie, Shari, Eva (in spirit) and Michael, you have my heartfelt condolences and prayers. He loved you dearly, and your lives filled him with such joy and pride.
Norma, your loyalty and love inspire all of us.
During his life, Bill crossed the paths of writers, educators, university presidents, celebrities, high school students, marathon runners and everyday people.
As longtime national chairman for disaster services for the Red Cross, he selflessly helped those struggling to rebuild their lives after earthquakes and typhoons. When Erma died in 1996, he started the Erma Bombeck Organ Donor Awareness Project as a resource for the 100,000 Americans today waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant.
Bill inspired others through his willingness to serve. Bob Daley, a longtime volunteer for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, found himself doing public affairs work for the Red Cross in New York City after 9/11 after he casually mentioned to Bill over dinner that he’d like to help. That very next morning he got a call from the Red Cross.
How do you begin to measure such a life, one that was so well lived?
When I asked a few friends their thoughts, I was struck by the similarity of all of our impressions. To a person, we were touched by Bill’s humor, humility, unpretentiousness, generosity, love for family and passion for education.
Fran Evans, a former University of Dayton vice president, asked Bill to serve as co-chair of our “Call to Lead” fundraising and image-building campaign in the 1990s. She remembers how “he was generous in spirit. You just felt good around him,” she told me. “Wouldn’t you love it if someone said about you, ‘I just felt good in your presence.’”
Bill’s spirit of generosity is reflected in the teachers who touch the hearts and minds of children through their work in an early childhood demonstration school at the University of Dayton. The campus child care center was expanded, transformed and, in 2002, renamed the Bombeck Family Learning Center in recognition of Bill’s support.
His spirit of generosity is reflected in the lives of writers who find a supportive atmosphere at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. In 2000, Bill invited a few of his famous friends — columnist Art Buchwald, “Family Circus” cartoonist and neighbor Bil Keane and ERA advocate Liz Carpenter — to campus to launch the inaugural workshop.
This spring’s workshop, which we will dedicate in Bill’s memory, will be our 10th one. Its popularity has grown beyond our wildest dreams, largely to the personal involvement of Bill and the family.
This workshop, in Erma’s name, is part of Bill’s legacy. Over the years, he gently and consistently encouraged writers to find their own voices, not try to be the next Erma Bombeck.
Pat Wynn Brown, the workshop’s emcee, remembers — and cherishes — that encouragement. In an essay shortly after Bill’s death, she wrote, “He made me feel the same way Gregory Peck, playing Atticus Finch, made me feel when I first saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. That feeling: affirmation. …After Mr. Bombeck spoke at the first conference I walked up and introduced myself to him and told him I was a writer. He told me the secret of success was to keep at it, keep working, and write about my own view and not to try to be anyone else. He spoke directly to me as though he had all the time in the world to encourage an unknown writer.”
For me, I loved Bill’s dry sense of humor. Erma’s humor is legendary, but Bill was the master of the quip. After the first workshop in 2000, he sent me a handwritten thank-you note and a desk clock with a photo of the two of them. “The clock photo thing,” he wrote, “was a part of her office. The picture had been changed — she probably had Paul what’s his name Newman in it,” he wrote.
Brother Ray Fitz, past University of Dayton president, called Bill “a good straight man for Erma’s humor.” I think that’s an apt description.
At our inaugural workshop, after Bill presented boxes of Erma’s papers to their alma mater, he got a huge laugh when he joked, “Sometimes I feel like Prince Philip.”
Beyond Bill’s generosity and humor, he was a loyal friend. “Agnes” cartoonist Tony Cochran remembers nights of “laughter, sin and debauchery” around the piano in Dayton with his parents and the Bombecks holding court. “What I wouldn’t give,” he said, “to be a bored child again, listening to that magic laughter the four of them shared.”
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
Bill showed us how to live with humility, laughter and joy — and we’ll be forever grateful.
— 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.