Syndicated newspaper columnist Amy Dickinson speaks during the Binghamton University Foundation Annual Black-Tie Gala, held June 14 at the Appalachian Collegiate Center.
Photo by Jonathan King
Columnist Dickinson describes love for Southern Tier
June 17, 2014Tweet
Amy Dickinson escaped her life growing up on a failing dairy farm in the tiny village of Freeville, N.Y., the first moment she could – off to college and to pursue her dream of being a writer. But a funny thing happened. After working for NBC, getting married, living in London, getting divorced and living in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, she “cast her lot” with her people and bought a small house on Main Street in Freeville, returning home where she was surrounded and enfolded by the women in her extended family.
“These women taught me what I know,” she said. “My daughter christened them the Mighty Queens of Freeville. The Mighty Queens are specialists in fresh starts,” she said, and they frequently have dispensed advice on dating, when to start coloring your hair, what to do when you get a promotion or pink slip and how to ask someone politely to stop smoking.
Dickinson told her story at the Binghamton University Foundation Annual Black-Tie Gala, held June 14 at the Appalachian Collegiate Center on campus.
“Happy Dairy Day,” she began. “It’s Dairy Day today and that’s why we’re here. I started the day in the Dairy Day parade and milked a cow, and now I’m here with the glitterati. Very stylish and the juxtaposition is working well.
“I have never addressed an entire room of people who get me quite like I believe you do, because we share a place and know what it means to be a native of the Southern Tier,” she said. “People here excel in everyday graces, not the show-offy kind, the kind that matters.”
One of three sisters and daughter to a mother with three sisters of her own, Dickinson saw her father abandon his family, her family’s farm foreclosed on and the power of an education growing up. Her divorced mother took a job as a typist at Cornell University to support her four children and, at 48, started college at the same time as Dickinson herself. Her mother continued her education and became a professor at Cornell University, the very place where she had worked in the typing pool. “What I saw was that with an education, absolutely anything becomes possible and education can change a whole family’s DNA.”
Dickinson built her career as a freelancer and worked up to writing her own column for Time, but “after 9/11, freelancing and the Time column blew away literally overnight,” she said. “I spent a lot of time on my couch, but then Ann Landers died (I had nothing to do with it. She was old!).”
The Chicago Tribune asked about 10 people to try out to for the job to replace Landers, and sent each applicant five questions. “I answered my questions with the kind of confidence that can only be faked,” she said. After test marketing all of the answers before nine groups of editors and readers, “the number one choice was to bring Ann Landers back from the dead. That wasn’t a possibility, so it was decided that I would do.”
The column takes a lot of time, and Dickinson has been doing it for over 10 years. She tackles bushels of letters, along with e-mails and Twitter requests, and six years ago moved into her small house in Freeville to write her responses from home. “I’ve seen the world, but live on a tiny patch where I was born, where they don’t care that my name was once used as a clue on ‘Jeopardy,’” she said. She now joins her aunts, cousins and sisters for a Wednesday breakfast at a local diner to continue their lifelong conversations over coffee.
And, after being single for 17 years and having no dates in many moons, she plugged Freeville’s zip code into match.com. With less-than-promising results were less than promising, wearing lipstick and going to Wednesday breakfast with her aunties was a high point. She began writing a book.
“I decided to tell my story about the Mighty Queens and tell why I know what I know,” she said. “I realized that in a life full of fresh starts, they had taught me by example what it means to be an adult and what it means to be in a family, and when you’re in one, you’re in it all the way.”
While writing The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Story of Surprising Second Chances, there was a lot of pacing involved, she said, and her tiny house began to feel too small. She called a local builder. “It’s funny how things happen nothing like what my friends had told me over the years. Get out there, you’ll never meet a guy in your living room, they said,” Dickinson said. “I was single for so long that I had stopped trying, started trying and given up all over again.
“Now, what do you know, you CAN meet a guy in your living room,” she said. “One night, I told [the builder] that I was sorry I declined to have him renovate my house, but he could renovate my life instead.” Between them, they have five daughters.
Dickinson’s fondness for the Southern Tier and its people was evident as she spoke about a recent visit to Binghamton. She visited the University’s “prosperous and well-tended campus” and then traveled downtown. She went to Lost Dog and River Read Books and then to Sall Stearns to get a tie for her husband to wear to the gala. “Any town where you can get good coffee, a good book and a tie for a tuxedo, there’s hope for that town,” she said.
“Thank you for your investment and I promise you I’m here to stay.”
Dickinson’s column, “Ask Amy,” can be seen in the Press & Sun-Bulletin. She can be heard as a regular panelist on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” at 11 a.m. Saturdays at 6 p.m. Sundays on WSKG Radio.