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For Witty, Warm, Wonderful Advice, We Asked Beth

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Amy Dickinson writes the Ask Amy advice column for the Chicago Tribune. Her column appears in 150 newspapers across the country.

I think the best advice is simply good advice.

It's helpful, useful and delivered with respect.

Ask Beth's specialty was advising young people about relationships, sexuality and sexual behavior. This is a tricky business because kids and teens are often misinformed — or simply uninformed.

Most of all, young people have an acute sense of intentions. They can sniff out a sermon. They will close their minds to a lecture.

They wrote to Beth and read Beth because she was smart, informed, modern, funny — and very much on their side. She was honest, compassionate, tactful and — most important — she was frank.

No "private part" euphemisms for her: She called a penis a penis — in a newspaper, years before the word would appear in other media.

She validated the reality of homosexuality for young people who didn't have anyone else who would talk about it. She talked about sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, abortion, attraction and rejection.

Beth knew how to salt her common sense with truly memorable writing. This is the stuff that gets clipped and posted on refrigerators or stuffed in an envelope and sent off to college.

Here's how Beth encouraged a young person to flirt: "Look at all the things animals do to attract attention to a mate," she wrote. "The penguin, for example, lays a stone at his beloved's feet."

Here's what she said to an anxious 16-year-old girl who had never been kissed: "Whenever you catch yourself thinking you're geeky or unkissed, change these adjectives immediately to smart, interesting, totally gorgeous — inside and out — and highly kissable."

Beth was a great listener. And she let kids talk to her — through her column. The letters she ran sounded just like young people really talk — full of false starts, slang and buried leads.

Her professional persona was — well, she was like the best kind of older sister — home from college, sitting with you at the kitchen table and ready to tell you the TRUTH about things. Someone who could keep your secrets.

I never knew Beth's real name. I never knew what she looked like — though I've always pictured her as pretty and pert — wearing a cardigan around her shoulders.

I learned from her obituary that Elizabeth Winship was a New Englander to the core. Educated at a boarding school in Vermont, followed by Vassar and Radcliffe. She studied psychology and it showed — but her primary quality was her humanity.

She delivered her wisdom with warmth, intelligence and integrity, sparked by Boston flint.

She was the real deal. Authentic. Just how she advised millions of readers to be.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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