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HERS IS A STORY OF COURAGE AND stoic strength. And Erma Bombeck, who died April 22, at age 69, of complications following a kidney transplant, would no doubt have regarded it with the bemused disdain she reserved for such tribulations as dust balls and lint. Wisecracking champion of the American housewife, the columnist, author and TV commentator hated being reduced to what she called "poor little Erma" and only reluctantly shared her health problems with her millions of fans. Diagnosed at 20 with polycystic kidney disease, a common hereditary disorder that slowly forms tissue-destroying cysts, she suffered kidney failure in 1993, not long after having a mastectomy.

Since then, she had been on dialysis, self-administered four times a day. Last year one kidney was removed. But rather than use her clout to get to the head of the transplant list, Bombeck chose to wait her turn. Her friend Abigail ("Dear Abby") Van Buren, near tears, recalls how she offered to pull strings to get Erma into the Mayo Clinic. "No thanks, Abby," Bombeck said. "I'll just wait." Finally, surgery was performed on April 3 in San Francisco. Her doctors regarded Bombeck as, at worst, at moderate risk, but complications set in, including pneumonia.

Long before Roseanne appeared, snarling domestic-goddess jokes, Bombeck was the queen with a sponge-mop scepter. In her column, syndicated to 700 newspapers, and in her 14 books, she found absurdity in everything from dirty ovens ("If it won't catch fire today, clean it tomorrow") to vacations ("Jet lag can damage your biological clock and cause you to give birth at age 53"). She drew inspiration from life with Bill Bombeck, 69, her school-principal husband of 46 years, and their children: Betsy, now 42 and a retailer; Andrew, 41, a teacher; and Matthew, 37, a screenwriter. But she never condescended to homemakers. "I love those women," she said. And who doubted it? "That stuff wouldn't work if it was jokes," says her friend, columnist Art Buchwald. "What it was, was the truth."

Despite having a beautiful hillside home in an exclusive Phoenix suburb, Bombeck never outgrew her midwest-ern unpretentiousness. Her story, she said, could be told in "15 minutes, tops." She was born in Dayton. Her father, Cassius Fiste, a crane operator, died of a heart attack when she was 9 (he also may have had polycystic kidney disorder, as do her two sons). Her mother, Erma, remarried two years later. Bombeck wrote her first humor column at 13, for her school paper, but didn't turn professional until she was 37, when the children were of school age. She pitched a column to a local paper and, within a year, was syndicated.

Until the transplant, she was writing two columns weekly (called "At Wit's End") and had a new bestseller, All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room. She didn't want pity. "What a crummy exit," she told PEOPLE in 1994, "to have someone say, 'Yeah, I remember, she had cancer and kidney disease.' I want people to remember 29 years of work and a line of books in the library to give 'em a laugh."

TOM GLIATTO
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Albuquerque, MARK GLASER in San Francisco, MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles, LINDA KRAMER in Washington, LIZ McNEIL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Haederle,
  • Mark Glaser,
  • Michele Keller,
  • Linda Kramer,
  • Liz McNeil.