Advice columnist shares simple life truths at VU

By Raena Wilson

Lumen Reporter

“Life boils down to basic, simple truths,” Amy Dickinson, newspaper advice columnist of Ask Amy, said in her lecture. “I’m living proof that happiness can happen.”

The “simple truths” Dickinson has learned over the years are: hap­piness is a choice, speak the truth, take good care of yourself, look for inspiration, and forgive.

Dickinson shared these life les­sons as the keynote speaker for Vit­erbo’s Ethics in Leadership’s Con­ference on Hope on March 29, 2012. Viterbo’s Academic Vice President, Barbara Gayle welcomed the 500 au­dience members to the lecture in the Main Theater. Rusty Cunningham, editor of the La Crosse Tribune, in­troduced Dickinson.

Along with writing the Ask Amy column, which appears in 150 newspapers to over 22 million readers, Dickinson also published a New York Times Bestseller memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town that Raised Them in 2009.

“One reason we invited Ms. Dick­inson to be keynote speaker for the conference is that we always try to find someone who can take the con­ference theme beyond the ‘academ­ic’ language and focus that compris­es most of the conference,” Richard Kyte, director of the Institute of Ethics Leadership, said. “Also, her columns often focus on the idea of hope, because she talks about the importance of moving forward, not falling into despair, and giving peo­ple second chances.”

Dickinson grew up in Freeville, N.Y. where her parents owned a small dairy farm.

“I was raised on a farm that was in the family since the Revolution­ary War,” Dickinson said. “Our farm failed and my dad left in 1972, leav­ing my mom, my sisters, and me.”

Dickinson’s mom took a job as a typist after losing the farm to fore­closure and did what she had to do to support herself and her three daughters. She eventually got her master’s degree and became a pro­fessor at Cornell.

“My mom taught me what perse­verance is,” Dickinson said.

After graduating from George­town University, Dickinson began her career as a producer for NBC, living in New York City, then Lon­don. While in London, she and her husband divorced. Dickinson then moved to Washington DC with her daughter, Emily, 2, where she was a freelance writer.

When Ann Landers, syndicated advice columnist of Ask Ann Land­ers for the Chicago Sun-Times for 56 years, died in June 2002, Dickin­son was living off credit cards and watching “Judge Judy.”

“I joked with my editor about tak­ing over Landers’ column,” Dickin­son said. “The Tribune asked me to try out for the job a month later.”

Ten serious applicants were con­sidered after hundreds applied for the open position. The editor sent five questions to Dickinson and gave her a week to respond to them. Dickinson sent her responses back that same afternoon.

“The editor said to take the whole week,” Dickinson said. “I thought about it and decided no, if they want me to write for them, this is how I would do it.”

Nine focus groups met and read the responses from the 10 finalists.

“Newspapers are supposed to tell other people what is going on but they like to test things,” Dick­inson said. “They told me there was a clear choice on who would write for the column and they agreed on bringing Ann Landers back from the dead; I came in second.”

After living in Chicago, Dickin­son moved back to Freeville to help take care of her mother, who was disabled by arthritis. The transition from city life to small town life was a big change.

“I knew my priorities had changed when I skipped a conference call to take Mom’s cat to get shaved,” Dickinson said as she shared a slide of her mother’s cat on a slide show. The cat’s body was shaved and ap­peared to be wearing fur boots, which drew a laugh from the audi­ence.

Dickinson said she loves La Crosse because she can identify with smaller places.

“It’s in these places where people like to celebrate big things,” Dick­inson said, showing a slide of the La Crosse City Brewery tanks. The Guinness Book of World Records lists these tanks as “the world’s larg­est six pack.”

In an interview with Lumen be­fore the speech, Dickinson shared what it was like to write for an ad­vice column.

“I grew up reading advice col­umns,” Dickinson said. “I really re­spect advice and am more apt to ask than to offer.”

Dickinson uses her own experi­ences to help answer the advice col­umn questions. She takes notes and pays attention to her own experi­ences. When she is not able to draw on experience, she calls experts and reads books.

In the nine years Dickinson has written for Ask Amy, she has not skipped a day.

“Sunday through Wednesday is work, work, work,” Dickinson said. ‘This job provides balance because I really try to put it aside to have my own experiences.”

In Dickinson’s memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town that Raised Them, Dickinson shares her experiences of being with her mother, aunts, and sisters.

“My daughter, Emily, gave them that name,” Dickinson said. “They are the specialists in fresh starts, the women that are there for others.”

Dickinson had her share of hard­ships and adversity, and it was the Mighty Queens who taught Dickin­son about second chances and hope.

“The Mighty Queens saw me through the roughest times and shared my joys,” Dickinson said. “They also shared the knowledge that each of us can have a happy ending.”

Dickinson’s “happy ending” is very different from her early years of being a producer and living in a big city.

She is remarried and resides in Freeville, only blocks away from her sisters and mother, where she con­tinues to write for Ask Amy.

“I am an advocate for common sense, respect, and hope,” Dickinson said. “Hope is the fuel that keeps us going.”

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