Never afraid to take on the serious issues, Pauline Phillips — the woman known to the world as "Dear Abby" — was one of the first to make the public aware of the private pain of Alzheimer's disease.
Nearly 25 years later, the irony is not lost on her son, Eddie Phillips, who is quick to pull out advice column written by his mother that appeared on Oct. 23, 1980, under the headline "Memory Disease Can't Be Forgotten."
"Dear Abby: About two years ago I began to notice a change in my husband. He became increasingly forgetful and easily confused," Phillips said, reading the letter on Good Morning America. "Have you ever heard of Alzheimer's disease? I feel so helpless — how do others cope with this affliction?"
The letter was signed "Desperate in New York." Abby's reply started out with a soothing tone.
"Dear Desperate: You are not alone," she wrote.
Some 15 years after that letter was printed, Pauline Phillips began showing signs of that same devastating disease. By the mid-1990s, she was already co-writing her column with daughter, Jeanne, and as the illness progressed, that passing of the torch was made complete. The original Dear Abby officially retired in 2002. She lives in Minnetonka, Minn., with her husband of 64 years, Morton Phillips, and she also has caregivers.
"We call them angels because they are who are with her 24/7," Eddie Phillips said. "She watches a lot of television. She loves visitors. She loves to get out. And when she gets out she still wears her Dear Abby sweatshirt and loves to smile and wave and blow kisses."
Housewife Becomes Household Name
Before she became known to the world as "Dear Abby," Pauline Phillips was a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom with a modest attitude.
"I don't pretend to be an authority on journalism or on human relations," Phillips said as her career began. "I just happen to be a very happy, a very healthy, a very lucky young woman with a fascinating hobby."
She found fame in 1956 after reading the advice column that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, and brazenly letting the editors know she could do better: "They gave her a bunch of letters, thinking that, that they would never see her again — and she immediately took all of the letters to my dad's nearby office and whipped out answers and had answers back the same day. That knocked them off their feet," said Eddie Phillips.
Using the pseudonym "Abigail Van Buren," Phillips went from housewife to America's counselor in a career that spanned more than four decades. She counted celebrities, presidents, royalty and even a pope among her millions of fans. Her column was syndicated in more than 1,200 newspapers, and read by 95 million people a day.
To letter writers who signed off as "Baffled" and "Ticked Off" and all the millions of others who wrote in, she gave advice on every issue from selfish in-laws to bed-wetting to gun control.
"We're talking about things today we never would have dreamed of talking about 25 years ago," Phillips said in an interview that aired Oct. 12, 1982, on Good Morning America.
A Sign of Awareness
Pauline Phillips has never been told of her Alzheimer's diagnosis — her family and doctors felt hearing the words would be devastating emotionally. But a year and a half ago, a book by Nancy Reagan and an emotional phone call let her son, Eddie, know that his mother understands.