ELLSWORTH — Richard B. Dudman, an American newsman known for his memoir “Forty Days with the Enemy,” about his 1970 capture and imprisonment by Viet Cong communist guerillas in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, died peacefully Thursday, Aug. 3, at Parker Ridge retirement community in Blue Hill. He was 99. His wife, Helen, daughters Iris and Martha and other family members were with him.
For 31 years, Dudman reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, serving as its chief Washington correspondent for 12 years. His career ranged widely from covering President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to obtaining and publishing the Pentagon Papers during the Watergate scandal that led to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon.
William H. Freivogel, a former longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, worked in the newspaper’s Washington bureau. Initially skeptical, but nudged by friend and feminist Betty Friedan, Dudman hired Freivogel and his journalist wife, Margaret, to jointly cover the U.S. Supreme Court. The Freivogels, who were raising three children at the time, were allowed to split the job — an uncommon practice then and now in the news business.
“I don’t believe in heroes, but Richard Dudman is my hero,” William Freivogel wrote in the May 3, 2013 Gateway Journalism Review. “So many reporters and editors get tired, burned out or cynical. Not Dudman. He never has lost his love for a big story or his intrepid pursuit of the truth in the face of danger.”
Freivogel recalled the newspaperman’s motto: “Reporter who sits on hot story gets ass burned.”
While his distinguished journalism career is well known in Maine, where he wrote more than 1,000 editorials for the Bangor Daily News from 2002 to 2012, Dudman may be better known here as an engaged citizen.
A Rotarian, he delighted in flipping flapjacks at the Rotary Club of Ellsworth’s Blueberry Pancake Breakfast every August well into his 90s. He did so while former Hancock County District Attorney and pianist Michael Povich played “Sweet Georgia Brown” at his request. One of his granddaughters is named Georgia.
Also in Ellsworth, Dudman led two “Join Us in Making a Playground” (JUMP) campaigns to build and later improve the former Dr. Charles C. Knowlton School’s playground. He and Helen were honorary chairmen of the 2015 project to create the city’s Knowlton Community Park complete with a splash pad, ice rink and amphitheatre. In summer, families gather there to watch movies under the stars.
Ellsworth City Councilor and electrician Gary Fortier first met the Dudmans after they moved to town, having bought the CBS Radio Network affiliates WDEA-AM and WWMJ-FM in 1979. He and his late father, Joe Fortier, did a lot of electrical work at the radio station.
“They assimilated very well to the Downeast way of life. They are true givers,” says Fortier. “Ellsworth is a much better place because they have been part of it.”
Last year, Fortier was invited to accompany Dudman and his grandson Richard Howland to the Gridiron Club and Foundation’s white-tie dinner in Washington, D.C. The invitation-only club, made up of 65 elite political journalists, gave Dudman — its oldest member — a standing ovation. Dinner guests ranged from then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, then Republican National Committee chairman.
“Of the thousands of people in the world that he [Dudman] knows, he invited me,” marveled Fortier, who watched former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright give his friend a bear hug and be greeted warmly by other famous people. “It was incredible to see someone I have called ‘friend’ for 30 years so well regarded.”
Born in Centerville, Iowa, on May 3, 1918 and raised in Portland, Ore., Dudman treasured his adventures with the Boy Scouts’ Black Bear Patrol in the 1930s. He loved the outdoors and was a man of simple pleasures — a Klondike ice cream bar for dessert and a crackling fire at home in Ellsworth or in the cobblestone fireplace of his seasonal cottage overlooking Hadlock Cove on Little Cranberry Island.
An American flag flapping from a towering pole signaled when the newsman and his family were on the island. From his living room window, Dudman could see his Friendship sloop Freedom shifting in the wind on its mooring, his lobsterman grandson Richard Howland heading in to unload his catch or his wife picking wild blueberries or cranberries in the field across the road.
Through Washington, D.C., friends, the Dudmans discovered Maine and began vacationing with their two daughters Iris and Martha on Little Cranberry starting in 1956. The star-rank Boy Scout put his skills to work cutting firewood and sharpening knives for folks at the island’s church fair.
When he wasn’t chasing news stories, another of Dudman’s passions was exploring coastal Maine and beyond in his white gaff-rigged Friendship sloop built by Southwest Harbor master boat builder Ralph Stanley. He was often accompanied by Tom Halstead, a former disarmament specialist in the Carter administration.
In 1970, while being held prisoner for nearly six weeks by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the North Vietnamese, Dudman made himself a promise.
“During his captivity, Dick later told me, [he pledged] ‘If I ever get out of here alive, I am going to Southwest Harbor and get Ralph Stanley to build me a Friendship sloop,’” Halstead recalled in the 2006 Friendship Sloop Society Yearbook. “‘I’ll call her ‘Freedom’ and I am going to spend the rest of my life cruising the waters of Maine.’”
Freedom initially had kerosene running lights, sailed with a broken depth finder and lacked Loran, VHF marine radio, GPS or other devices.
Dudman and Halstead at first navigated by compass and wristwatch alone, “spending many an anxious moment feeling our way in thick fog, listening to the too-loud sound of surf on a nearby but invisible rocky shore, or hunting for the elusive bell or whistle in mid-Penobscot Bay or Jericho Bay, off Cutler or Campobello,” Halstead wrote.
At the heart of Dudman’s life was his happy marriage to Helen Sloane Dudman. They celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary on March 13.
In 1948, the two met in Denver, Colo., where he worked as a reporter for the Denver Post and she was a copy editor at an advertising agency. Separately lunching with friends and sitting back to back in booths at Rosen’s Deli-Restaurant, she noted the Denver Post reporter’s trim bow-tie. She’d seen him around when she delivered press releases to the daily newspaper.
“I had a blouse with a bow tie, but it was always crooked,” related Helen. “So I turned to him and said, ‘Can you tell me how to tie a bow tie? He reached over the partition and tied it.”
The encounter led to a picnic date that weekend in the Rockies, which prompted further ministrations by Dudman, who was called upon to probe Helen’s scalp for Rocky Mountain wood ticks. That clinched their courtship and marriage later that same year.
In 1949, Dudman went to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and quickly made a name for himself. An intrepid reporter, in the 1950s he waded into a riot by inmates over inhumane conditions at St. Louis’s medium-security jail — called “the workhouse” — and dictated an eyewitness account. He also impressed the newspaper’s city editor when he picked him up and drove through a blizzard in a war-surplus jeep to the office.
Dudman’s skilled reporting and writing and inquiring mind led to his eventual transfer to the newspaper’s Washington bureau, from which he was subsequently dispatched to cover wars and revolutions around the globe from Cuba and Guatemala to Southeast Asia.
On his overseas assignments, the newsman corresponded with his wife and daughters. The letters are among the Richard Dudman Papers at the Library of Congress.
In 1966, during his third trip to Vietnam, the newsman’s elder, teen daughter Iris sought his advice about what foreign language to study.
“I am seriously considering Russian, but I don’t know,” she wrote. “Please answer because we have to answer soon.”
Also while he was in Vietnam, his younger daughter Martha asked him “to write me about the situation there, and explain it so I can tell those guys I argue with. OK?”
By 1971, Dudman had become the Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau chief. That year, he worked his contacts to secure a copy of the Pentagon Papers exposing the United States’ escalating role in the Vietnam War. He dispatched the newspaper’s political reporter to Cambridge, Mass. Calls from a succession of phone booths led to a porch where a copy of the classified material had been left hidden under a pile of newspapers. The Post-Dispatch was among the first newspapers to publish the report’s revelations.
On Dudman’s last day as the Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau chief, he dashed up Connecticut Avenue to cover the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
“It has been said that we all have a birth date and a death date, with a dash in between. It’s what we do with our dash that counts,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said on Aug. 3 in a statement entered into the Congressional Record to mark Dudman’s passing. “Richard Dudman’s dash was extraordinarily long, and he made it count. He filled it with passion, professionalism and dedication. May his memory inspire us all to do the same.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19, at Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home at 113 Franklin St. in Ellsworth.