Dear Abby’s legacy: Wit, warmth, and snappy advice

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Jeanne Phillips, who took over the column in 2002 after a few years of sharing the byline, recalled in a telephone interview Thursday her mother’s response to a woman who wrote in detail of how many drinks she’d shared with her date one night. “Did I do wrong?” the woman wrote, in the daughter’s retelling.

“Probably,” her mom responded.

But with all the wonderful humor, the younger Phillips says she was most impressed with two things: her mother’s compassion and her bravery. The compassion, she says, shone through especially when her mother met her readers. She remembers a young girl coming up at a speaking engagement and saying something quietly, at which point her mother embraced the girl, who wept on her shoulder.

“That is my favorite visual memory of my mom,” she said.

Dear Abby’s advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, she has said, she was reluctant to advocate divorce.

“I always thought that marriage should be forever,” she explained. “I found out through my readers that sometimes the best thing they can do is part.”

But her bravery, her daughter says, was exemplified even more by her willingness to take on issues like abortion, AIDS, sexism and other hot topics. She caught some flack for writing about homosexuality.

“Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad,” she said. “People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been compassionate toward gay people.”

Phillips didn’t always stop at answering letters; sometimes she called people directly.

“I’ll call them. I say, `This is Abby,” she said. “How are you feeling? You sounded awfully low.’ And they say, `You’re calling me?’ After they start talking, you can suggest that they get professional help.”

Her longtime editor, Alan McDermott of the Universal Uclick features syndicate, said he was struck by how she combined that compassion with an infectious sense of humor, and good spirits.

“I don’t think I ever, in all those years, saw her without a smile on her face,” said McDermott, who edited her column for some 20 years. The two would speak on the phone weekly, and he sometimes accompanied her on speaking engagements.

And even though Phillips was a good 30 years his senior, McDermott says, she was not above a little innocent flirting. One morning he called her hotel room, and she quipped, “I think you left you left your toothbrush here,” he remembers with a chuckle.

Pauline Esther Friedman, known as Popo, was born on Independence Day 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes after her identical twin, Esther Pauline (Eppie). Their father was a well-off owner of a movie theater chain. Their mother took care of the home. Both were immigrants from Russia who had fled their native land in 1905 because of the persecution of Jews.

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