TAKEAWAY: She was the dispenser of wise and practical advice to millions. To me, Dear Abby was one of my first English teachers, imparting useful lessons not just in my new language, but, better yet, in just plain Americana.
It came as one of those beeped news alerts from The New York Times on my iPad: Pauline Phillips, Flinty Adviser to Millions as Dear Abby, Dies at 94.
Immediately I had images of my first encounter with Dear Abby, the witty, always right and most revered of advice columnists (at least by millions of Americans who turned to her daily to see how she solved problems for the thousands who wrote her seeking her wisdom).
I never wrote a letter to Dear Abby, although I did draft a few that were never put in an envelope addressed to Miss Abigail Van Buren, her chosen pen name.
You see, I discovered Dear Abby around the time I was 15, a newly arrived refugee from Cuba, living in the Miami of the 1960s. So while Dear Abby was the source of wisdom to many, to me she was the best English teacher one could dream of. Not only was she a fun read, but for me, a way to practice my new language.
Everyday I would find the Dear Abby column in the back of The Miami News, next to the horoscope and crossword puzzles, and would devour what Abby had to say to the woman in Topeka who did not know how to handle her mother in law, or the mechanic in Little Rock who needed help with women customers of a certain age who made sexual advances to him as he fixed the engine of their car.
But, boy, did I have fun with some of the letters that came into Abby’s mailbox. Here some of those gems:
DEAR ABBY: What’s the difference between a wife and a mistress?
DEAR BESS: Night and Day.
DEAR ABBY: My husband hates to spend money! I cut my own hair and make my own clothes, and I have to account for every nickel I spend. Meanwhile, he has a stock of savings bonds put away that would choke a cow. How do I get some money out of him before we are both called to our final judgment? He says he’s saving for a rainy day.
DEAR Hitched: Tell him it’s raining!
DEAR ABBY: Do you think about dying much?
DEAR Curious: No, it’s the last thing I want to do.
I would circle all the new English words that I discovered in the column, then turn to the dictionary. Abby was my English teacher, even if she did not know it. She taught me idiomatic expressions in my new language. Better yet, she taught me Americana 101, 102 and 103.
For example, I remember asking myself after reading a barrage of letters to Dear Abby on these subjects: So that is the way Americans think the toothpaste tube should be squeezed, and why is it so important to discuss how you place the roll of toilet paper in the bathroom?
Editing Dear Abby
As the years passed and I became a full fledged American, and as a young journalist and copy editor working with The Miami News, I had the privilege of preparing the Dear Abby column for publication.
I remember that many days, the Dear Abby column was longer than the space allocated for it.
“Just cut a letter or two,” the editor would instruct me.
Not an easy task.
Every Dear Abby letter had a message.
Every Dear Abby letter was interesting.
Every Dear Abby letter included a funny line from what The New York Times described as “flinty columnist”
How could I deprive our readers from this one letter? No way I would cut that one, or the other one. Those, too, were early lessons on the role of the editor, the one who makes selections, always with the readers in mind.
In the end, one would have to fit the copy to the space, of course.
The text everyone read from start to finish
Years later, when conducting EyeTrack Research with The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the type of tests where readers can’t lie about where their eyes went (and stayed), it was no surprise that one of the few stories that everyone read from start to finish was the Dear Abby column.
For those who may have never read a Dear Abby column, the obituary about her in The New York Times is peppered with some of the best of Abby, a clever way of incorporating her no nonsense and humorous advice.
The New York Times was one of the few newspapers that did not carry the Dear Abby column.
Her obituary in the Times, however, commanded the lead position of the Top of the News page in the Times’ tablet edition. The announcement of her death made it as a breaking news alert for all of the Times’ digital devices.
Abby would have loved the irony and probably answered with something like:
Dear Times, I am not at all surprised, since good things come to those who wait..
Pages we like
Bild am Sonntag had these two double page spreads, both related to sports. In one, about the most famous soccer coach, Pep Guardiola, with a headline that reads: Pep Guardiola’s secrets; the second spread is devoted to tennis star Maria Sharapova, with a headline that reads: Maria’s Million Game.
Of special interest
Here is coverage of our recent work with the Silicon Valley Business Journal, via The Huffington Post:
Silicon Valley Business Journal Redesign: Local Publication To Be Model For National Update
Mario’s upcoming speaking engagements
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