In this modest Ranch-style house in Centerville, Ohio, Erma Bombeck sat at a makeshift desk fashioned from a wooden plank and cinder blocks and used an IBM Selectric to type the “At Wit’s End” columns that launched her career.
Erma, her husband and their children lived here from 1959 to 1968. Many of the events that inspired her humorous stories about family life took place in this private suburban Dayton home, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in May.
Born in 1927, Bombeck graduated from the University of Dayton and got married in 1949. Soon afterwards, she stared writing her “Operation Dustrag” columns for the women’s section of the Dayton Journal-Herald, which she continued until 1953. After a 12-year break to start a family, she returned to the Dayton Journal-Herald to write her “At Wit’s End” column, which eventually was nationally syndicated. Her “Up the Wall” column in Good Housekeeping, her interviews on “Good Morning America” and her 12 best-selling books — including The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? — made her a popular household name.
After the Bombecks moved to Arizona, Erma enjoyed writing atop a large rock in her neighbor’s yard. When she died in 1996, her husband had the 15-ton boulder measuring six feet long and over five feet tall moved to Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery, where it marks her grave.
The rock sits close to the entrance of the cemetery, which was established in 1841. Adolph Strauch, the landscape gardener who created Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery, helped with its layout. It’s a beautiful place, with its rolling terrain, a lookout point that’s the highest point in the city, and a variety of championship-status trees, including a sassafras, a sycamore maple, a birdnest spruce, a redbud and a pawpaw. The cemetery’s Romanesque gateway, chapel and office were completed in 1849.
In 1904, New York’s Tiffany Studios created a signed stained-glass window depicting a river flowing from a mountain lake, surrounded by cedar trees, poppies and lilies, for the chapel. Other highlights of the chapel include a mosaic containing over 100,000 pieces of hand-cut ceramic tile and stained-glass windows depicting woodland themes from literature, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and “Evangeline,” Marjorie Rawlings’ The Yearling and Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Other well-known Daytonians buried at Woodland include George Huffman, the founder of the company that manufactured Huffy bicycles; Charles Kettering, who developed the electric starter for the automobile; John Patterson, who founded the National Cash Register Company; and Paul Laurence Dunbar, the noted African-American poet. A simple Tiffany bronze plaque fastened to a boulder features the first stanza of Dunbar’s poem, “A Death Song.” A memorial stone for Dunbar’s wife, Alice, rests alongside it.
The Wright family plot, including the graves of Orville and Wilbur Wright, is the cemetery’s most visited location.Another popular monument marks the grave of five-year-old Johnny Morehouse, who fell in the Miami & Erie Canal and died around 1860. Legend has it that Johnny’s dog was so sad that he sat at the boy’s grave and visitors began leaving small plates of food for him. The custom continues today, as people often leave little toys at the grave.
For more information on Woodland Cemetery, see Woodland: 150 Years, by Norris D. Hellwig. The cemetery’s office offers a free map and reference guide to the best trees and most historic of the over 100,000 monuments on the grounds. It also offers walking tours to the gravesites of famous Daytonians, the cemetery’s mausoleum, and its upper loop, starting and finishing at Lookout Point. Other walking tours focus on Woodland’s birds and trees. Visit its website for more details.
The University of Dayton remembers Erma Bombeck through some interesting initiatives. The university’s archives holds her electric typewriter and some of her personal correspondence. ErmaMuseum.org is an online museum about Erma Bombeck’s life. It also holds the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop every other year. The next workshop will be March 31-April 2, 2016, on the campus of the University of Dayton.