"Dear Abby" columnist Pauline Phillips
01/17/2013 at 04:45 PM EST
"Dear Abby" columnist Pauline Phillips, who starting in 1956 under the pen name Abigail Van Buren began giving some 90 million newspaper readers advice on everything from Civil Rights to dating, died Wednesday in Minneapolis, said a family spokesperson. She was 94.
"She'll be terribly missed by the people who love her. She'll always be in my heart. She had an irreverent sense of humor. She left an amazing legacy," daughter Jeanne Phillips tells PEOPLE.
"I'm honored that she trusted me enough to let me continue her column for her. I feel very empty today. It's a very sad day."
For years Phillips had suffered with Alzheimer's disease, the first signs of which began showing in the mid-1990s. By then, she and Jeanne were writing the column together, until such time in 2002 that Pauline could no longer handle the task and Jeanne took over the family's advice business completely.
Among the many remarkable facts about Phillips (who took the name Abigail from the Bible and the surname from President Martin Van Buren) is that her identical twin sister, Esther "Eppie" Lederer, was in the same line of work – as columnist Ann Landers.
They were born in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 4, 1918, and both worked on the Morningside College newspaper – and were even married in a double-ring ceremony on their birthday in 1939. Lederer, who took over the Chicago Sun-Times
advice column in 1955, died in 2002, at 83.
Phillips began her career when she was a 37-year-old housewife, having contacted the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle
to tell them she could do better with their advice column. Her first byline appeared Jan. 9, 1956.
"They gave her a bunch of letters, thinking that, that they would never see her again – and she immediately took all of the letters to my dad's nearby office and whipped out answers and had answers back the same day. That knocked them off their feet," her son, Eddie Phillips, once told ABC News
Abigail Van Buren dispensed her words of wisdom for the next 40 years, in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide – and often addressed sensitive issues that people were afraid to bring up at their own dinner tables.
Her style was benevolent but sometimes tough. Readers of her column knew they had to stand on their own two feet, and have the backbone to stand up to very strong convictions. And, always, she championed human rights above all else.
As Dear Abby professed in 1964 and which still holds true today: "The purpose of life is to amount to something and have it make some difference that you lived at all."
In addition to her devoted readers and, according to the family spokesperson, the millions of friends she made in her lifetime, Phillips is survived by her husband of 73 years Mort Phillips, her daughter (her son Edward died in 2011 at 66), four grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
Phillips's death was first reported by TMZ.com.