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Pauline Phillips, longtime Dear Abby advice columnist, dies at 94

By Michael Martinez, CNN
March 7, 2013 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
  • NEW: "There is always an answer, even if it' can't change anybody but yourself," she said
  • Pauline Phillips was author of the Dear Abby column for decades
  • She used the pen name Abigail Van Buren
  • In 2002, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease

(CNN) -- Pauline Phillips, better known to millions of newspaper readers as the original Dear Abby advice columnist, has died after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, her family said Thursday.

She died Wednesday in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at age 94.

Phillips' columns were published in an era when newspaper readers began to prize straight-talking, pithy advice about marriages, children, jobs -- just about anything that troubled people.

Phillips wrote under the pen name of Abigail Van Buren, shortened to "Dear Abby" in newspapers. "Abigail" was taken from the wise woman in the Old Testament and "Van Buren" was one of her favorite presidents.

The first Dear Abby column appeared in 1956, and Phillips solely wrote the advice feature until 2000, when she and daughter Jeanne began sharing the byline.

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Jeanne Phillips took the column over full time in August 2002, when the family announced that Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer's.

"I have lost my mother, my mentor and my best friend," Jeanne Phillips said in a statement. "My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change. I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy."

Pauline Phillips strove to say more with less. Her direct style was captured in her favorite Swedish toast, according to the column's syndication service:

"Fear less; hope more. Eat less; chew more. Talk less; say more. Hate less; love more."

What was your favorite Dear Abby advice?

Before the digital era of journalism introduced such notions as "crowd sourcing" of the public and computerized metrics on readership, Phillips assembled her Q&A columns from queries mailed in from readers. She was able to quantify her following by the number of newspapers who bought her columns -- and by how many readers spent money on a stamp to mail her a letter.

"Dear Abby" is the world's most widely syndicated column, having appeared in 1,400 newspapers with a daily readership of more than 110 million, the syndication service Universal Uclick said.

In another example of her following, Phillips held a survey in 1987 asking readers to send a postcard or note -- anonymously if they wanted -- about whether they cheated on their mates.

Almost 250,000 people responded within three months.

Her twin sister was also a famous advice columnist. Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer, who died at age 83 in 2002 of multiple myeloma, was the author of the newspaper column "Ann Landers."

Phillips, who was born July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa, ventured into journalism in 1955 at age 37. She called the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and told him she could write a better advice column than what the paper had.

Phillips was surprised when the editor agreed to interview her. She described herself as "an average, middle-aged housewife who had been happily married to the same man for 17 years and had reared two 'reasonably normal' teenagers," according to a statement by the syndicate.

She had never written professionally, though she studied journalism in college. But she asserted she could write an advice column "because all of her life she had been an amateur 'wailing wall without portfolio,' " the syndicate said.

Dear Abby: Kyra Phillips remembers her mentor

Editor Stanleigh Arnold "wanted only to get this self-styled journalist out of his office, so he asked her to write sample replies to some previously published columns. She did, and the rest, as they say, is history," the syndicate said.

The first "Dear Abby" column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 9, 1956, the same year it was first syndicated.

Phillips advocated "equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged," and her column "promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan," the syndicate said.

When asked of her greatest accomplishment, Phillips often stated: "Surviving."

In a 1990 interview with CNN's Larry King, Phillips explained the bottom line of dispensing advice:

"There is always an answer, even if it's say, look, pal, you can't change anybody but yourself. You got to play the cards that are dealt you and you have to live with this, do the best you can. But you got to accept what fate deals you," Phillips said.

She is survived by her husband of 73 years, Mort Phillips; daughter Jeanne Phillips; grandchildren, Dean Phillips, Tyler Phillips, Jay Phillips, Hutton Phillips; and two great-granddaughters, Daniela and Pia.

Private services have been held.

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