Eagle-Tribune page designer John O’Neil was having dinner with his wife Nancy at the Andover Inn one night in June 1990. It happened to be the same night that Pauline Friedman Phillips, better known as Abigail Van Buren or Dear Abby, was dining there with then Eagle-Tribune owners Irving and Chip Rogers, as well as former Editor Dan Warner and their wives.
O’Neil went up to the table to pay his respects — and to joke with Warner that he told the Inn to put the meal on his tab — when he met Phillips, who was scheduled to speak the following day at the newspaper’s Centennial Celebration.
“I had no idea who she was,” O’Neil said. “She was a classy looking woman. Very nice — almost regal.”
Yesterday he, and others who remember her visit to the Merrimack Valley, recalled her with fondness as news of her passing was released.
The 94-year-old died Wednesday in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said Gene Willis, a publicist for the Universal Uclick syndicate.
“My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change,” her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who’s been writing the column since 2002, said in a statement.
Private funeral services were held yesterday.
Phillips’ appearance in the Merrimack Valley was the idea of longtime Eagle-Tribune Editor Dan Warner.
“Every newspaper has to have either Abby or Ann (Landers), and we had Abby,” said Warner, from his home in Florida. “They are popular, timeless, indispensable. They have a huge following — we needed a name, why not that one?”
Warner wrote a letter — either to Phillips or her syndicate — inviting her to the private celebration that attracted 500 people.
“It was a very formal letter,” Warner remembers. “About a week later, I got a phone call from her, which was frankly surprising. She was glad to come and wouldn’t take money. She liked being out, with her fans.”
Warner described her as gracious, warm and sincere. That’s also how Chip Rogers remembers her.
“She was very entertaining and funny — quick witted,” said Rogers, who picked Phillips up at the airport and shuttled her to events during her stay. “She was really easy to have a conversation with, and a fun person to be with.”
Rogers particularly remembers her speech, which resonated with many of the 500 people in attendance.
“It really felt like she was part of everything,” he said. “She had been part of the paper for so long, and part of everybody’s lives, it was fun to watch.”
Wearing a pearl choker and a black and white polka-dotted dress, Phillips told the crowd of her first forays into column writing. In 1956, she decided the San Francisco Chronicle needed a new advice columnist.
“So I knocked on their door,” Phillips said at the time. The editor gave her a shot, and it turned into a lifelong career.
“That’s how one journalist started at the top because she didn’t have enough experience to start at the bottom,” Phillips said.
During her talk, Phillips recounted a letter from a Lawrence teenager she’d received.
“Dear Abby, I am going steady with two boys. One is romantic and the other one is decent.”
She also mentioned the best advice she’d ever gotten: It was from her mother, and it was never to keep bananas in the refrigerator.”
Phillips started sharing her “Dear Abby” byline with her daughter Jeanne in 2000. She retired from writing two years later due to the Alzheimers.
She was best known for some of her shortest columns, many featured in the 1981 book “The Best of Dear Abby.”
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?
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.”
If the letters sounded suicidal, she took a personal approach: “I’ll call them. I say, ‘This is Abby. How are you feeling? You sounded awfully low.’ And they say, ‘You’re calling me?’ After they start talking, you can suggest that they get professional help.”
Phillips started out life as Pauline Esther Friedman, or Popo, was born on Independence Day 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes after her identical twin, Esther Pauline (Eppie), better known to readers as Ann Landers. Their father was a well-off owner of a movie theater chain. Their mother took care of the home.
The twins spent their growing-up years together. They dressed alike, both played the violin and both 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. Pauline married Morton Phillips, a businessman, Esther married Jules Lederer, a business executive and later founder of Budget Rent-a-Car. The twins’ lives diverged as they followed their husbands to different cities.
The Phillipses lived in Minneapolis, Eau Claire, Wis., and San Francisco, and had a son and daughter, Edward Jay and Jeanne. Pauline, who had been working for philanthropies and the Democratic Party, followed her sister’s lead into the advice column business, though she insisted it wasn’t the reason for her decision.
Searching for a name for the column, Pauline chose Abigail from the Bible and Van Buren from the eighth American president. Within a year she signed a 10-year contract with the McNaught Syndicate, which spread her column across the country.
“I was cocky,” she admitted in 1998. “My contemporaries would come to me for advice. I got that from my mother: the ability to listen and to help other people with their problems. I also got Daddy’s sense of humor.”
Aside from the Dear Abby column, which appeared in 1,000 newspapers as far off as Brazil and Thailand, Phillips conducted a radio version of “Dear Abby” from 1963 to 1975 and wrote best-selling books about her life and advice.
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.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.