It has been more than two decades since Amy Dickinson left the upstate New York dairy farm where she was born and raised, but for a few minutes a few days ago she might as well have been a little girl again. She was visiting Lincoln Park's Farm in the Zoo and asking one of the keepers if she could feed a couple of cows.
"I could, in a pinch, milk a cow. But I don't expect I'll be called on to do that," she said.
She will, however, need to be resourceful in other ways. Dickinson will soon be tackling matters of infidelity, illness, greed, dating, splitting up, weddings, funerals and all manner of issues and problems that befuddle and bedevil, confuse and amuse mankind. On Sunday, July 20, she starts writing "Ask Amy," her seven-days-a-week advice column. In so doing, Dickinson who is a veteran journalist and radio commentator and a distant relative of the poet Emily Dickinson, will enter into the most intimate relationship that exists between newspapers and their readers.
For more than a century, readers have been writing to newspapers. Some have written to complain, some to praise. But most have written asking for advice about life's vexations and troubles, or to share their observations on life's oddities and joys. For nearly 50 years, the recipient of many of these letters -- to the loud tune of some 2,000 every day -- was Eppie Lederer, known to most of her correspondents as Ann Landers.
"Eppie's passing was a painful loss for readers," said Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski. "Her death created a void and we spent a great deal of time talking with readers about how to, or even if to, fill that void. It didn't take long to realize that this was something that readers wanted from the Tribune and we were determined to deliver it with a new and distinctive voice."
In the weeks before beginning what she hopes will be a lengthy and engaging dialogue with readers, Dickinson was settling into Chicago. She found an apartment close enough to see and hear the animals in the zoo, enrolled her 14-year-old daughter in high school, purchased a bike ("A one-speed bike, can you believe I found one of those?"), and watched the men tote her furniture and other belongings from the moving truck that had made its way here from Washington, D.C.
"I must have a thing for zoos," Dickinson said. "In Washington, D.C., Emily and I lived next door to the National Zoo."
A couple of little girls watched as Dickinson fed hay to a cow named Prairie.
"Are you a doctor?" asked one, taking note of the white jacket Dickinson was wearing.
"No," Dickinson said. "Do you want to be a doctor?"
"No," said the girl. "What's that cow's name?"
"No, no," said the other girl. "What's that other cow's name?"
"So many questions. Let the lady be," said the girls' mother.
That phrase seemed to hang in the air -- so many questions -- and recalled something Dickinson had said a few days before: "I am tremendously excited by this opportunity but the other night I had a dream about being buried under envelopes. And I worry about trying to fill Eppie Lederer's pumps. She was really skilled at taking the national pulse, and her column over the years reflected the hopes, dreams, fears and concerns of the great wide majority of the American public. That's what I've been thinking about a lot. I really want my column to reflect this moment in time and to give people a place to turn for a humane hearing of their problems and to offer accurate and helpful advice."
Like Lederer, who was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Dickinson is a small-town product, born 43 years ago in Freeville, a town of 450 people in the Finger Lakes district of New York, where her roots run deep. Her family has lived in this area since the Revolutionary War. "I grew up hearing stories about my ancestors' exploits," she said. "My great-grandfather was warden of Sing Sing prison and my great uncle ran off to Europe and joined the circus when he was 40."
Fan of Ann Landers
She also grew up reading Ann Landers, and said the column "brought the world to me."
"Reading her column allowed me to listen to the national dialogue," Dickinson said. "People in Dallas, Iowa City, Savannah, Boston, Portland and upstate New York were worried about the Vietnam War and alcoholism and, oh, yes, meddling mothers-in-law. Sometimes her column was just really entertaining, but reading that there are strangers out there who shared problems and concerns, that was a tremendous value. Ann Landers was a person of her time, and I'm a person very much of my time."
Kirk Read is professor of French at Bates College in Maine. He has known Dickinson since they were children.
"Amy is the classiest, funniest, smartest girl to walk off the farm," he said. "She has always made a living and a life of investigating and telling, with intelligence, respect and charm. The two phrases of hers that echo in my head are, `What's up with that?' and, `OK, guys, here's what we know. . . . ' I have taken her advice for years. She leads people to their own best advice. She's a listener and, yes, a pretty adept talker."
Dickinson graduated with a degree in English from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and her subsequent professional resume includes stints as receptionist for The New Yorker magazine, producer for NBC News in Washington and New York, nightclub singer and a freelance writer.
A lounge singer
"Nightclub is too nice. It was actually more a hotel lounge in [the Georgetown section of] Washington. Did it for three years. Just me and a piano player and a brandy snifter for people to put tips," she said, adding that her experience for this job was having sung in church choirs.
She was married for five years to Anthony Mason, chief economics correspondent for CBS News. They divorced 12 years ago and she supported herself and her daughter by writing a weekly column, carried on America Online's News Channel, which often drew on her experiences as a single parent and member of a large, extended family, as a Sunday school teacher for 10 years and as a substitute teacher at a nursery school. Her work also appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Esquire, Allure and O, and she contributed to the "CBS Sunday Morning" show. For the past three years, she has been a frequent contributor to Time magazine, writing a column about family life. And for the last seven years, Dickinson's commentaries and radio stories have been featured on the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered."
"I like Amy a lot. When she walks into a room I feel smarter and happier," said Noah Adams, an NPR correspondent who worked with Dickinson when he was with "All Things Considered." "That she is going to be writing an advice column makes perfect sense to me. She is sensitive and sensible, with a sense of humor." Dickinson comes to the Tribune's pages after a lengthy search for the right person to replace Lederer. In the wake of Lederer's death on June 22, 2002, the Tribune and many of the other 1,200 newspapers that carried the Ann Landers column were flooded with resumes from many already writing advice columns and from dozens of others in various walks of life eager to try their hand at advice-giving.
"It's a testament to Eppie that she made what she did look so easy," Lipinski said. "After her death we heard from hundreds of people telling us, `Well, I could do that.' We eventually had a list of candidates and in every test with readers, Amy always rose to the top.
"Amy is not only a terrific reporter but someone with a common sense approach to dealing with life and with life's questions. She is also a delight to be around. It is rare to find people who on paper are the same as they are in person. Amy is just that and I think readers will immediately sense it."
Elizabeth Gilmer's advice
The modern advice column has its roots in the 19th Century. Its most famous early practitioner was Elizabeth Gilmer, who wrote under the name Dorothy Dix. From 1896 to her death in 1951, Gilmer/Dix dominated the field. At the height of its popularity in the 1930s, the column was syndicated to some 300 papers and had a potential readership of 30 million. But at the time of her death, many newspapers and syndicates had stopped carrying advice columns and those advice-givers who remained in the field were far from household names.
One of them was Ann Landers, the pseudonym of a nurse named Ruth Crowley. It was published in the Sun-Times and a handful of other papers. When Crowley died unexpectedly in 1955, the person chosen to replace her was a 37-year-old housewife with no professional writing experience. Her name was Eppie Lederer and her snappy way with words and her innovative use of experts in various fields propelled her to international fame. She moved to the Tribune in 1987, at which time she negotiated the right to the name Ann Landers, a name that she determined should die along with her.
The Tribune will continue to publish the popular Dear Abby column, which appears daily in the Tempo section. Created by Lederer's twin sister Pauline Phillips in 1956, it has been written since 1987 by her daughter Jeanne Phillips. "Dear Prudence," the syndicated column written by Lederer's only child, 63-year-old Margo Howard, will no longer run in the Tribune.
"There is not merely a continuing but a growing need for advice," Dickinson said. "I think that is because modern lives are fragmented and people are really looking for a sense of community. People share so many of the same problems and concerns. I have been living out here in the real world and I've been taking notes. I've survived divorce -- my parents' and then my own. I have experienced the tension between trying to raise a child and make a living. I've watched my savings disappear in the failing economy, changed flat tires, gone on blind dates, taken in strays, made boneheaded mistakes, forgiven people and been forgiven. I have the same kind of problems as people who write in for advice. I don't have all the answers at my fingertips. But fortunately I have wise and sage friends and family, my own little board of life-advisers. I've also been a reporter for almost 20 years now and I know how to find things out. I'm devoted to the idea of service journalism and know from my own career how to research and report accurately."
Busy days ahead
Once the demands of her column begin, she knows there will be few, if any, days in which she can go to the zoo, feed the cows, chat with the keepers, meet zoo president Kevin Bell and wander over to R.J. Grunts for something to drink. On the walk she was explaining that her apartment "is furnished with items I bought at flea markets, yard sales and church basement consignment shops." She said she and her daughter are "voracious readers" and "passionate fans" of old movies. She said she still has a fondness for hotel lounges, but as an audience member, not a performer. She was also asking questions about Chicago and offering opinions, too, such as, "This is a much friendlier town than Washington. People say hello to you -- strangers. And they will smile at you."
A couple of kids playing in the park say, "Hi," and when they stand next to Dickinson one realizes how small she is, thin and a couple of inches over 5 feet. One also notices that her white jacket is flecked with hay.
"We had 50 cows when I was a kid. That Farm in the Zoo is wonderful but it really is like Disneyland, a theme-park compared to the farm on which I grew up," Dickinson said. "It was really a hardscrabble life there and eventually the farm went the way of many small farms, out of business. My parents divorced. My father's a beekeeper in Pennsylvania. And my mother . . . my mother went back to college when she was 50. She earned a degree and then got a master's and was a professor of writing at Ithaca College in New York. She's the person I most admire and who I go to often for advice."
Her mother, Jane, is retired now and living in Freeville. "Naturally, I'm proud of Amy," she says. "But all I've taught her in life is about the movies and Gregory Peck and Marlon Brando. Everything else, she's learned on her own."
It is midafternoon and Grunts was empty. Dickinson took a stool at the bar and the bartender approached.
He asked a question. It's not a particularly hard one to answer. "What are you having?" he said.
Dickinson's answer was quick and precise and even a bit surprising. "A chocolate malt," she said.
"Good answer," the bartender said.
"Hey," Dickinson said, "that was easy."