BLUE HILL — Driving a battered yellow Volkswagen convertible, Helen Sloane Dudman rolled into downtown Ellsworth nearly 40 years ago to start a new chapter in her life.
The Washington Post’s former executive women’s editor, who died at age 93 on Monday, Feb. 19, at Parker Ridge retirement community in Blue Hill, was excited. But she also was a little nervous about her new professional venture: owning and operating the CBS Radio Network affiliates WDEA-AM and WWMJ-FM in the Hancock County shiretown and WEZQ-FM (FM 92.9) in Bangor.
No stranger to Maine, the newswoman and her journalist husband, Richard, and daughters, Iris and Martha, had spent summers on Little Cranberry Island since 1958. But the plain-spoken Midwesterner wasn’t known in local business circles.
“I knew I could run a radio station, but I didn’t know if I could live in a small town,” Helen recalled in a 2014 Ellsworth American interview.
Douglas H. Brown, the late founder of the Doug’s Shop ’n Save supermarket chain, gave the former Washington Post editor a piece of advice. He told her just “don’t drive a big, fancy car” as she navigated her new community.
Six feet tall, Helen was comfortable in her own skin, as they say today. The Northwestern University graduate had headed public relations at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) during the late 1970s in Washington, D.C. She also had directed publicity at the Post-Newsweek radio station chain.
Forthright, unpretentious and a good listener, the experienced broadcaster cut a striking figure in her broad-brimmed straw hat and pinstripe shirts. The 1991 Maine Broadcaster of the Year led efforts to open trial courts to photographers and electronic media while at the helm of Dudman Communications Corp.
A mover and shaker in Maine media and business circles, Helen also became a local civic leader spearheading a tree-planting campaign in downtown Ellsworth. She and her community-minded husband also are credited with leading two separate campaigns to build and later improve the former Dr. Charles C. Knowlton School’s first playground. The Dudmans most recently were honorary chairmen of the 2015 project to create the city’s Knowlton Community Park complete with a splash pad, ice rink and amphitheatre.
At the heart of Helen’s life was her happy marriage to her tenacious, journalist husband, who died on Aug. 3, 2017, at Parker Ridge. He is best 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.
Married for 70 years, the two met in 1948, 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, 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. The outing prompted further ministrations by Richard, who was called upon to probe Helen’s scalp for Rocky Mountain wood ticks. That clinched their courtship. They were married later that same year.
Eventually moving to Washington, where Richard was the St. Louis Post- Dispatch’s chief Washington correspondent for many years, the Dudmans’ Newark Street home was a lively, welcoming place for the couple’s diverse friends from Little Cranberry residents to anti-war activists including the then-young Bill Clinton.
One summer, Clinton lived with the Dudmans.
“He [Richard] and Helen both opposed the war and supported the young people who were trying to stop it. They were wonderful to me,” related the former U.S. President in his 2004 memoir “My Life.” The Dudmans introduced Clinton to their neighbor and friend, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy. “I liked McCarthy more than I expected to, especially after he loaned me a pair of shoes to wear to the black-tie Women’s Press Dinner.”
When Richard was away on assignment, life went on on Newark Street, where Helen was fully engaged with her own work and raising her daughters. On one such occasion, she needed a man to stand in at a dinner party and called up FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. She had never met him.
“Richard was away somewhere and Helen was supposed to be hosting this dinner,” recalled former Maine Community Foundation President Henry “Hank” Schmelzer in 2014. He was speaking on behalf of the Boy Scouts of America’s Katahdin Area Council at a dinner honoring the Dudmans for their respective professional and civic contributions.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) first met Helen when her father, Don Collins, and the radio station owner both served on the Maine Community Foundation board.
“She [Helen] was extraordinarily intelligent, strong in her views, and committed to making Maine an even better place. I so valued her friendship over the years as did my mother with whom she became close friends,” Collins said Tuesday in a statement issued from Washington, D.C. “Helen had a remarkable impact on thousands of Mainers, but none more so than her family. My heart goes out to her daughters, Martha and Iris, and to her grandchildren.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 17, at Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home at 113 Franklin St. in Ellsworth.