Pauline Friedman Phillips, more commonly known as Abigail Van Buren – or Dear Abby – passed away on January 17. She was 94 years old and had suffered from Alzheimer’s for over 15 years.

I remember hearing a lot about Dear Abby, probably back in the 70’s, but never really paid much attention. As I’ve been reading about her the past couple of days, I’m finding she was actually quite an extraordinary woman. In 1956 at the age of 38, she approached the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and informed him that the paper’s advice column was boring. She submitted samples of her work and was promptly hired to take over the column. In 1956, that was a pretty bold move for a female! Let’s face it, the 1950’s was the decade of June Cleaver, a far cry from the career women of this millennium (absolutely no offense to stay at home moms, but it was a different world sixty years ago!).

Not afraid of ruffling feathers, Mrs. Phillips was an early supporter of gay rights, and when asked her opinion on Viagra, she called it “wonderful.” While Dear Abby was once known for advising against divorce, she credited her readers with teaching her that under certain circumstances, it was the only healthy choice. Willingly admitting that she could be cocky, she also showed great compassion for her readers. Upon receiving letters from people that sounded suicidal, she would pick up the phone and call them, encouraging them to seek help.

I had no idea that she was also a very early advocate for Alzheimer’s disease, again showing her willingness to tackle tough topics. In 1980, she published a letter from a woman seeking advice after her husband had been diagnosed with ALZ. Abby assured the distraught woman that she wasn’t alone and told her about a newly formed organization called the Alzheimer’s Association. Within two weeks of that column’s publication, the Association was flooded with inquiries.

Over the years, Abby continued to help connect people with the ALZ resources they needed, so there was some irony in the fact that she herself began to show signs of the disease in the mid 1990’s. Lonnie Wollin, one of the founders of the Alzheimer’s Association calls her impact on ALZ advocacy “profound.” She credits Mrs. Phillips with boosting awareness and helping enable the Association obtain funds to support families, educate caregivers, and ultimately increase the country’s research budget from $2 million in 1980 to over $450 million today.

So from all of us who have personal experience with this unrelenting disease, and for all whose life will be touched by it in the future: Thank you, Dear Abby. May you rest in peace.

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