She’s certainly endearing as Abby

Jeanne Phillips was only 14 years old when she began earning her allowance by answering mail from te

Jeanne Phillips was only 14 years old when she began earning her allowance by answering mail from teenagers for her mother, Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, who started the Dear Abby advice column in 1956.

“I think I’m one of those people who is genetically predisposed to try to help people,” said the younger Phillips, who now writes the column.

“If it’s opening a door for somebody who can’t or helping someone carry a grocery bag, I have this compulsion to help, and it didn’t start with the column. I think that’s what nice people do for each other,” said Phillips, who lives in Los Angeles and prefers to be called Abby.

15th Annual Women’s Night Out

WHERE: Crowne Plaza, Albany

WHEN: 4 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

HOW MUCH: $65

MORE INFO: 243-4600 or www.ellishospitalfoundation.org

Abby will be the keynote speaker at the 15th annual Women’s Night Out on Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza in Albany. Dinner will be at 6:15 p.m. followed by Abby’s speech at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $65. Proceeds from the event will benefit Bellevue Woman’s Care Center in Niskayuna.

A gracious but private woman who prefers to talk about her column rather than herself, Abby said people must be open to other people for nice things to happen to them.

Making eye contact with people, being willing to smile, being willing to take a minute and exchange amenities — some folks do and some folks don’t, but I believe it helps people stay connected,” said Abby.

Abby took over the column from her mother under the same pen name in 1987.

“My mother is almost 90 now and she has Alzheimer’s,” said Abby. “She’s not doing that great, and its very sad to me. In fact, it’s infuriating to me that someone with such a brilliant intellect could be stricken with this disease. Nobody recognized it in the beginning for what it was. She was just disorganized, confused and not feeling creative. That’s how it started.”

Abby’s column is ready by more than 110 million people each day.

About 70 percent of the people who write to her are women. Readers come from all over the world.

“Men not only read my column — they write and ask for an autographed picture,” said Abby. “I get a big kick out of that.”

Most of Abby’s letters come from 18- to 49-year-old readers .

“I suspect it’s because those are the ages when the hormones really hit,” said Abby. “And that’s when people really start getting into trouble. First, there’s the dating problem. Then the marriage problem. Then the kids problem. Then the in-law problem. What’s interesting to me is that people want to know about other people. It’s kind of a human characteristic.”

Oops

Of the many thousands of letters the columnist has received, Abby said a couple of humorous ones stand out.

Dear Abby: I decided to give my boyfriend, John, a special surprise last Valentine’s Day. I bought a big red bow, tied it around my waist and called my Valentine to let him know that I was on my way. I left wearing nothing but a coat over the bow. When I arrived at John’s house, I rang the doorbell and opened my coat and said “Happy Valentines Day.” I found myself face to face with my parents who John had invited for a visit. As my boyfriend rolled on the floor with laughter, my dad said “Surprise.” My mother just stood there in shock. It’s the last time I’ll try a gift like that. — No name please but surprised.

Dear Surprised: No wonder red is the color for Valentines Day. Just be grateful it wasn’t his parents.

Dear Abby: My father always claimed that in the small Southern town where he grew up everyone was a regular churchgoer except for one old man who was a professed atheist. When the old guy died, my father said the headstone read, “All dressed up and no place to go.” — Bob in Tampa.

Dear Bob: Which shows he was not only an atheist, but a pessimist.

Important topics

Abby said some of the most common themes in her column include: domestic abuse, crimes against children, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide prevention.

“ ‘How can I get a nice girl to date me,?’ ” is one I hear quite often,” said Abby. “Young men are saying, ‘Why is it that girls only want the bad guys?’

“I think they like the challenge,” she continued. “And some girls find being treated well is boring. They go for the cute guys and the athletes. But with all due respect to our athletes, life is more than how many baskets can be shot or balls kicked over the goal line.”

When asked if the letters have changed over the years to reflect the change in society, Abby chuckled.

“I am very often asked that question, and my answer is always the same,” said Abby. “The times change, but people don’t.”

Because of the Internet, Abby’s column is read all over the world.

“The common thread, the thing I find most interesting, is that people are the same,” said Abby. “People are still falling in love with the wrong people and struggling with family problems. I don’t think that will ever change. It’s just that the advice has to be culturally appropriate.”

Remembering military

Abby has continued the project Operation Dear Abby, which was started by her mother, through which e-mails can be sent to soldiers who are overseas. Now called OperationDearAbby.net, readers have sent more than 2 million individually written electronic messages of support to all branches of the U.S. military worldwide.

“It’s wonderful that people take the time to take such a program to heart,” said Abby. “It’s a ‘feel good’ program for people who write, and it’s wonderful for soldiers to know they are not forgotten.”

Abby said she receives more than 10,000 letters and e-mails a week.

“Besides the column, my staff and I answer as many as we can,” said Abby. “I also call people and talk to them. It’s an absolute blast to be able to do that.”

Abby said her column remains fresh because “truth is stranger than fiction.”

She said she uses her gut instinct to help her decide which letters to publish.

“If it appeals to me, if I find it interesting, or I think it might be educational, I’ll put it in,” she said.

Abby said she generally follows her own advice.

“For the most part, I have a pretty good batting average,” she said. “Also, I’m so busy I don’t have time to get into trouble.”

Making a difference

Retirement is the farthest thing from Abby’s mind.

“I love getting up in the morning and helping as many people as I can,” she said. “It’s a blessing to know that you can make a positive difference in somebody’s life.”

When Abby comes to Albany, she said she will talk about how she got started and relate some of the interesting letters she has received.

“When I write my column, the tone I use is the same tone that I use with my friends,” she said. “I consider my readers my friends. So when I meet them, it’s like a big group hug. I want people to have a good time and to get to know me a little better. And I want to get to know them a little better, too. Isn’t that what life is all about?”

Categories: Life and Arts

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