In the maelstrom of social norms, family customs and personal values, it’s easy to get lost in the muck of life’s more complicated situations. There’s always been a place in this world for the wise. They’ve led nations, they’ve advised rulers, but at the most basic level, they’ve been there to guide the lost and weary. So it’s no surprise nearly every magazine or newspaper sports an advice column to which anonymous inquirers can divulge their sticky situations.
“Dear Abby” has been a household name, recognizable by old and young, since the advice guru Pauline Phillips started the column in 1956. Phillips’ work as an advice columnist stretched decades, beginning with an interview procured by Phillips herself at the “San Francisco Chronicle” where she detailed to the editor-in-chief that she could best their then advice columnist, a challenge that landed her her first job in the world of journalism. Throughout her career, Phillips has seen hundreds of reconciliations and changes of heart.
Last Wednesday, the world lost Mrs. Phillips, better known by her pen name, “Abby.” Phillips passed away at the age of 94 in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
Adopting her full pen name “Abigail Van Buren” from traditional roots — Abigail for the prophetess in the Book of Samuel — “Then David said to Abigail, ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you'” — and Van Buren for its old-family presidential ring, the silver-tongued confidante became known for her brutal honesty and frank responses to inquiring minds on issues ranging from marriage, health, friendships and slews of personal issues.
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.
Part of the syndicate for honesty, Phillips never veered from the harsh truth and often left readers re-evaluating how they too went about similar situations. On the other hand, Phillips was also revered as the warm-hearted guide to the misguided and confused, with her experience in sensitive situations from training hospital volunteers.
As quoted in the New York Times, in 1989 Phillips said, “I learned to listen. Sometimes, when people come to you with a problem, the best thing you can do is listen.”
As a cultural norm, many topics like sexuality, health problems or problems in relationships between family members, partners or even friends, have become taboo, a matter too difficult or uncomfortable to discuss with even the closest of friends. Advice columns have provided the bashful the anonymity to communicate their fears or confusion in exchange for advice for hundreds of years, and yet, without Phillips’ contribution to the cause and setting of the bar, the quality and content of today’s millions of advice columns may have never come to be what it is now: professional, honest and valued.
Phillips is survived by her daughter, Jeanne; her husband, Mort Phillips; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her daughter now writes for “Dear Abby.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Megan Curry at Megan.firstname.lastname@example.org.