"I could, in a pinch, milk a cow. But I don't expect I'll be called on to do that," she said.
For more than a century, readers have been writing to newspapers. Some have written to complain, some to praise. But most have written asking for advice about life's vexations and troubles, or to share their observations on life's oddities and joys. For nearly 50 years, the recipient of many of these letters -- to the loud tune of some 2,000 every day -- was Eppie Lederer, known to most of her correspondents as Ann Landers.
"Eppie's passing was a painful loss for readers," said Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski. "Her death created a void and we spent a great deal of time talking with readers about how to, or even if to, fill that void. It didn't take long to realize that this was something that readers wanted from the Tribune and we were determined to deliver it with a new and distinctive voice."
In the weeks before beginning what she hopes will be a lengthy and engaging dialogue with readers, Dickinson was settling into Chicago. She found an apartment close enough to see and hear the animals in the zoo, enrolled her 14-year-old daughter in high school, purchased a bike ("A one-speed bike, can you believe I found one of those?"), and watched the men tote her furniture and other belongings from the moving truck that had made its way here from Washington, D.C.
"I must have a thing for zoos," Dickinson said. "In Washington, D.C., Emily and I lived next door to the National Zoo."
A couple of little girls watched as Dickinson fed hay to a cow named Prairie.
"Are you a doctor?" asked one, taking note of the white jacket Dickinson was wearing.
"No," Dickinson said. "Do you want to be a doctor?"
"No," said the girl. "What's that cow's name?"
"No, no," said the other girl. "What's that other cow's name?"
"So many questions. Let the lady be," said the girls' mother.
That phrase seemed to hang in the air -- so many questions -- and recalled something Dickinson had said a few days before: "I am tremendously excited by this opportunity but the other night I had a dream about being buried under envelopes. And I worry about trying to fill Eppie Lederer's pumps. She was really skilled at taking the national pulse, and her column over the years reflected the hopes, dreams, fears and concerns of the great wide majority of the American public. That's what I've been thinking about a lot. I really want my column to reflect this moment in time and to give people a place to turn for a humane hearing of their problems and to offer accurate and helpful advice."
Like Lederer, who was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Dickinson is a small-town product, born 43 years ago in Freeville, a town of 450 people in the Finger Lakes district of New York, where her roots run deep. Her family has lived in this area since the Revolutionary War. "I grew up hearing stories about my ancestors' exploits," she said. "My great-grandfather was warden of Sing Sing prison and my great uncle ran off to Europe and joined the circus when he was 40."
Fan of Ann Landers
She also grew up reading Ann Landers, and said the column "brought the world to me."
"Reading her column allowed me to listen to the national dialogue," Dickinson said. "People in Dallas, Iowa City, Savannah, Boston, Portland and upstate New York were worried about the Vietnam War and alcoholism and, oh, yes, meddling mothers-in-law. Sometimes her column was just really entertaining, but reading that there are strangers out there who shared problems and concerns, that was a tremendous value. Ann Landers was a person of her time, and I'm a person very much of my time."
Kirk Read is professor of French at Bates College in Maine. He has known Dickinson since they were children.