Remembering David Letterman's Mom, Dead At 95

Apr 12, 2017

"Dave's Mom, Dorothy Mengering." That's how she signed her note to me. It was Dorothy Mengering's way of saying she didn't consider herself as a celebrity.

Mengering, 95, died at her suburban Indianapolis home Tuesday, according to the Indianapolis Star.

She died the day before her famous son's 70th birthday.

"I'm not a celebrity. I'm a celebrity's mother," she told me in 1998. "I think I'm thought of as everybody's mother or grandma. What they're really saying is that they love their moms. That's what I represent."

Mengering appeared on David Letterman's NBC and CBS late-night TV shows as Dave's Mom, sometimes from her Indiana kitchen or as Dave's special correspondent from the Winter Olympics broadcast by CBS from around the world.

In TV lexicon, she was a "fish out of water" at the Olympics, a person thrust into an awkward or foreign setting for comedy. She was delightful as herself, a modest and polite Indiana mother and former church secretary. The kind of woman who would acknowledge an act of kindness by writing a thank-you note.

I have two of them.

In my quest to get an interview with her son, I called Dave's Mom at her Indianapolis home in 1993. I wanted to talk about Dave watching Cincinnati's "Paul Dixon Show" simulcast on Indianapolis TV, which inspired his TV comedy. She wanted to talk about Ruth Lyons, another Cincinnati TV icon whose "50-50 Club" show was simulcast live at noon weekdays on WLWT-TV and in Indianapolis, Dayton and Columbus.

"He watched Ruth Lyons every day," she told me. "David came home from school for lunch and we would watch her, as much as his lunch hour would allow."

Twice in the 1990s, I sent her cassette tapes about Ruth Lyons. She sent me a thank-you both times. "It brings back such fond memories, although I cry over the tragic end to her life. She was a terrific lady," she wrote. (Lyons died in 1988 after a series of strokes.)

At a 1995 press conference with TV critics in Los Angeles, Letterman described his mother this way to us: "My mom, bless her heart, there is not a more normal human on the planet than my mother. And when I say normal, it kind of runs to the dull side, but nonetheless normal."

"Late Show" producer Robert Morton said that Dave suggested his mother for the Olympics bits. "Letterman just out of the blue said, 'How about my mother?' And he was very concerned... that he doesn't want her to work hard, he doesn't want her to feel the pressure of having to perform. And she's loving it. She's great."

TV critics were surprised and amused when we learned during the annual summer TV press tour in Los Angeles in 1995 that Dave's Mom was writing a cookbook. Letterman's CBS "Late Show" producers assured us that she was surprised too, when a publisher asked her to write a cookbook called "Cookin' with Dave's Mom."

When the publisher pitched the cookbook idea, Morton said that "Letterman said to me, 'If it's an advance of 'x' amount of dollars, a real high figure.' And two weeks later, I went into his office and said, 'They got that amount of money.'  Morton then called Dave's Mom. "She said, 'My God, I can't believe it!' She was floored. It was so great. It was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me, to be able to tell this woman that. I said, 'Look, talk to your daughters, talk to your husband, that's a lot of money. You could put your grandchildren through college with that kind of money.' And she was very excited." 

Released in 1996, her cookbook included recipes for "David's Fried Baloney Sandwich," "Mother's Oven-Fried Chicken" and "Baby Food Muffins."

We spoke again before her book signing at a Cheviot-Westwood Kiwanis Club meeting in 1998. Her $9 profit from the book went to the Kiwanis International's effort to battle iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) in third world nations. 

Her husband Hans Mengering was a Kiwanis Club member. She was married to Hans from 1983 until his death in 2013.  Joe Letterman, her first husband and father of their three children, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1973. Joe, a florist, was 57.

In 1998, always polite Dave's Mom again thanked me for the Ruth Lyons' tape:  "I play it over and over and over. It brings back such great memories of David coming home from school for lunch, and watching Ruth Lyons with him."

Mengering is survived by her three children, five grandchildren and a sister.

The Indy Star story has links to Dave's Mom's TV moments, an obituary written by her three children and a story on David Letterman's "shift from limelight to leisure."