After a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, Pauline Phillips, better known to millions of newspaper readers as the original Dear Abby advice columnist, died Wednesday in Minneapolis, Minnesota at age 94.
Phillips, was born on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa; her first venture into journalism would come in 1955 at the age of 37, when she called the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and told him she could write a better advice column than what his paper had.
To her surprise the editor agreed to interview Phillips; during their first meeting she described herself as "an average, middle-aged housewife who had been happily married to the same man for 17 years and had reared two 'reasonably normal' teenagers," according to a statement by the syndicate.
She asserted that she could write an advice column "because all of her life she had been an amateur 'wailing wall without portfolio,' " the syndicate said.
Editor Stanleigh Arnold "wanted only to get this self-styled journalist out of his office, so he asked her to write sample replies to some previously published columns. She did, and the rest, as they say, is history," the syndicate said.
Phillips wrote under the assumed name of Abigail Van Buren, a combination of the names "Abigail", taken from the wise woman in the Old Testament, and "Van Buren", who was one of her favorite presidents. Newspapers would shorten this name to the now well-known "Dear Abby".
The first "Dear Abby" column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 9, 1956. Phillips solely wrote the advice feature from 1956 until 2000, when she and daughter Jeanne began sharing the byline. Jeanne Phillips took the column over full time in August 2002, when the family announced that Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer's.
Before the digital era of journalism introduced such notions as “social networking” and instant advice seeking methods, Phillips created her Q&A columns from queries mailed in from readers. She was determined her following by the number of newspapers who bought her columns, and by how many readers spent money on a stamp to mail her a letter.
"Dear Abby" is the world's most widely syndicated column, having appeared in 1,400 newspapers with a daily readership of more than 110 million, the syndication service Universal Uclick said.
In her column Phillips advocated "equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged," and her column "promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan," the syndicate said.
She is survived by her husband of 73 years, Mort Phillips; daughter Jeanne Phillips; grandchildren, Dean Phillips, Tyler Phillips, Jay Phillips, Hutton Phillips; and two great-granddaughters, Daniela and Pia.
Private services have been held.