It was another of those assignments that editors make before their first jolt of caffeine in the morning.

"GATES: DEAR ABBY PRESS CONFERENCE . . . AIRPORT, 4PM."In under a dozen words, my editor had assigned me to interview probably the greatest dispenser of advice to the free world since my mother. Any ideas about what to ask someone who's been asked every question known to mankind and answers them in three paragraphs or less?

My first inclination was to ask her how to get purple crayon off the cat. But it seemed a job better suited for Heloise the longer I thought about it.

My next brainstorm was asking which side of the dinner plate the shrimp cocktail fork belongs. But then I thought Miss Manners wouldn't like that.

Maybe I could ask her what makes light bulbs work. Only I didn't care. And if I did, I'd be better off asking Andy.

Questions about safe sex seemed to fall under Dr. Ruth's purview.

And while I've wondered, ever since I learned (and quickly forgot) that silly little song, whether the knee bone is connected to shin bone - or is it the ankle bone - I thought it a question better tackled by Dr. Donahue.

So when that fateful, or is that fatal, moment arrived, I simply blurted out in my best stammer, "Well, just what kind of questions, uh, er, do you answer, Abby?"

Abby's response to this ill-posed question proved as succinct as the nearly 1,000 bits and pieces of advice she dispenses weekly: "I write about people and people's feelings," she said.

And so it is. Abigail Van Buren might not be able to answer every question on nuclear physics, fork etiquette, or your sacroiliac, but since her column made its debut in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956, "Abby" has been trying to bring a little sanity - albeit long-distance - into this crazy world by helping people cope with life.

"I think people are basically good and they hurt when they're bad. You have to remember that I'm a trouble dump, though."

Abby, who will be the keynote speaker at the Utah Conference on Strengthening the Family at 9 a.m. Saturday at Cottonwood High, said she's worried about the gradual disintegration of the American family. "It's not as strong as it used to be. There's much too much divorce . . . people marry for the wrong reasons. And there are too many families without the benefit of clergy.

"Children aren't being raised the way they used to. Sometimes I wonder if people realize the responsibility children are."

Although Abby's column usually centers on love and relationships, she's branched out into other areas. "I get a lot of questions about weddings."

She said it's usually touchy stuff like what's the best way for the mother of a bride to treat her ex-husband's (and bride's father) new spouse: like a leper, or rabid dog.

Asked if wedding tips might be infringing on Miss Manner's turf, Abby smiled and said, "That's her problem." Although she admires Judith Martin (Miss Manners) and many of the other nationally syndicated advice columnists, you won't see Abby shying away from their area of expertise - unless it falls in the Dr. Ruth category.

"Some of that is a bit too graphic," she said.

Does Abby ever feel like she needs an advice columnist, herself?

"No, and if I did, I'd just call up my sister (Ann Landers)," she said laughing.

After more than three decades of advice giving, Abby really does seem to have all the answers.

Now Abby, about that purple crayon . . . .