• Click here to hear a performance of the 1973 song "Dear Abby" by folksinger and songwriter John Prine.
He called her Aunt Popo, and she always called on his birthday, sent cards for his wedding anniversary and often just phoned to chat.
Omahan Ron Brodkey said his aunt — known to millions of readers as Dear Abby — possessed a kind and sincere personality that made her advice columns successful for decades in newspapers around the world.
“(She) cared about people's problems,'' he said.
Pauline Phillips, who wrote her column under the name of Abigail Van Buren, died Wednesday in Minneapolis at age 94 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
It is difficult to overstate the native Iowan's influence on American culture. Johnny Carson mentioned Dear Abby in his monologues, and the columns sparked water-cooler conversations. People would poke fun at what they considered outlandish questions from letter writers, but still read every word.
“For most people she was a daily must-read,'' said Chris Allen, an associate professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “(She) built such trust with people.”
The media landscape was vastly different when Phillips launched her column more than 50 years ago. There weren't Internet bloggers tapping out opinions 24 hours a day, or TV channels choked with all the Dr. Phils of the media world.
Dear Abby's “impact over a sustained period — I don't think you would find that today,'' said Sherrie Wilson, a journalism professor at UNO. “It's so much more fragmented.”
But even now, Dear Abby's reach is vast. Phillips' daughter, Jeanne Phillips, took over the column unofficially in 1987 and officially in 2000. According to its syndicator, Dear Abby appears in about 1,400 newspapers worldwide, has a daily readership of more than 110 million — in print and on its website, dearabby.com — and receives more than 10,000 letters and emails a week.
Phillips certainly didn't invent the newspaper advice column, which has been around since the late 1800s. But Allen said she set the standard.
“It was level-headed and reasoned,'' he said.
Phillips' column competed for decades with the advice column of Ann Landers, written by her twin, Esther Lederer, known as Eppie, who died in 2002.
They grew up as the Friedmans in Sioux City, Iowa. Their older sister, Helen Brodkey, settled in Omaha and died in 2003.
Ron Brodkey, Helen's son, said his famous aunts called his mother every day. Ron is retired from the Brodkey family jewelry business, but when he was working, his aunts would track him down at one of the company stores to wish him happy birthday.
Sales clerks couldn't believe when they answered the phone and Dear Abby was on the other end.
His aunts made many trips to Omaha over the years, he said. They always attended family weddings and other events.
Brodkey said the family usually didn't go out when his aunts visited. If they dined at a restaurant, his aunts' presence created a stir. One time, he said, a woman followed one of his aunts into the restroom of an Omaha restaurant seeking an autograph from Dear Abby.
The twins' 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 from their native land in 1905 because of the persecution of Jews.
The twins spent their growing-up years together. They dressed alike, they both played the violin, they wrote gossip columns for their high school and college newspapers. They attended Morningside College in Sioux City. Two days before their 21st birthday, they had a double wedding.
The twins were competitive. The oft-told story is that Phillips (Abby) started her column without telling her sister, which led to their not speaking. But they patched that up long ago.
Phillips admitted that her advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, 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. If a man or woman is a constant cheater, the situation can be intolerable. Especially if they have children. When kids see parents fighting, or even sniping at each other, I think it is terribly damaging.”
She willingly expressed views that she realized would bring protests. In a 1998 interview she remarked: “Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. 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.”
Asked about Viagra, she replied: “It's wonderful. Men who can't perform feel less than manly, and Viagra takes them right off the spot.”
About working mothers: “I think it's good to have a woman work if she wants to and doesn't leave her children unattended if she has a reliable person to care for them. Kids still need someone to watch them until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions.”
In her book “The Best of Abby,” Phillips commented that her years writing the column “have been fulfilling, exciting and incredibly rewarding . . . My readers have told me that they've learned from me. But it's the other way around. I've learned from them. Has it been a lot of work? Not really. It's only work if you'd rather be doing something else.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the New York Times.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, email@example.com
Samples of questions to 'Dear Abby' and her answers
Dear Abby: My boyfriend is going to be 20 years old next month. I'd like to give him something nice for his birthday. What do you think he'd like? — Carol
Dear Carol: Nevermind what he'd like, give him a tie.
Dear Abby: What inspires you most to write? — Ted
Dear Ted: The Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Dear Abby: I've been going with this girl for a year. How can I get her to say yes? — Don
Dear Don: What's the question?
Dear Abby: Two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up. We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours — blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and men who look like women. This has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name. How can we improve the neighborhood? — Nob Hill Residents
Dear Residents: You could move.