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ESSAY- "Advice Columnist Landers dies . . .": A Remembrance

Published 07/04/02 in issue #22 of The Hook


Ann Landers crosses the city newsroom-- in high heels, no less-- like she owns the place; I am surprised at how small she is physically. She's perfectly coiffed and made up and wearing a stylish black scoop-neck dress. She has "presence," although at the time, 1962, I didn't use that word that way. Ann Landers is in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to make a speech to high school students. Her talk is sponsored by the Patriot-News, publisher of the morning Patriot and Evening News.

As a cub reporter in the papers' women's department for the past nine months, I have interviewed lots of politicians (mostly males), artists, and writers, but Ann Landers (née Esther "Eppie" Lederer) is the first celebrity appearance that I cover.

To reach the executive editor's glassed-off cubicle, Landers strides across the news room, a large open area dominated by old time cigarette-smoking male reporters pecking out obits, police reports, and other local news at manual typewriters and wisecracking with each other or the headline writers at the large communal editing desk.

They're too hardboiled to admit they notice Ann Landers in the office. But Earl, the city editor, standing like an orchestra conductor in the center of this phalanx of reporters, looks over his left shoulder toward the women's department and nods, silently communicating her presence to us, the four women reporters and our male editor, "Tony"-­ delightfully irreverent, and gay, although we never speak of his or anyone else's sexual orientation.

But Landers has come to talk to our bosses before she speaks to high school students, where I'll cover her appearance. When she died last week at 83, her obituary reported she had been producing her column since 1955. That means that when she came to Harrisburg in 1962, her column had been in existence for only about seven years, yet she was already an icon.

I am assigned to cover her talk to the high school students that afternoon at Cedar Cliff High School where kids from two additional high schools have been bussed in to hear her.

Her opening gambit to the teens is direct: "No doubt many of you have been wondering what the old battle-ax looked like."

The audience roars with laughter.

In 1962, the sexual revolution is merely simmering; sexuality is repressed, but Landers knows her audience. Pointing her finger, she says, "I think I have a good idea what you kids are thinking about."

Laughter ripples through the auditorium, and some kids look embarrassed, as though they have been caught in the act. Landers launches into her topic: "necking, petting, and where to draw the line." She's funny and irreverent, but she looks at the audience frankly as she talks. I feel as though she's looking at me as well-- after all, I'm only a few years older than the kids here.

After the session, I interview the audience. One student, a newspaper carrier back in the days when kids delivered the papers, sums it up: "I thought she was terrific."

"You could tell by her straight answers that she is an intelligent woman," says another boy, "and also very good looking."

"She was blunt, intelligent and natural," adds a girl from Camp Hill. "She really talked as though she were a teenager herself."

For whatever reason, teens and adults wrote to Ann Landers for advice for almost half a century. She provided the same straight talk that the kids (and I) so loved. And the day after she died-- 40 years after I heard her in Harrisburg-- I read another Ann Landers column. Even after death, her voice lingers on.

It's as though Ann Landers is not quite ready to let us off the hook.

Now an environmental attorney, Kay Slaughter has had a varied career, including a stint as Charlottesville's mayor.


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