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C. Fraser Smith: Dancing toward death

After the funeral service Monday, friends and relatives gathered for more reflection and a toast or two for James Dudley Clendenin.

There had been a bigger turnout than might have been accorded most 67-year-olds. The older we get, the less likelihood of having ambulatory survivors.

By all accounts, Dudley would have loved the service and the party that followed – save for the obvious fact of his being unable to attend. A habitual late arriver, there was just the slightest wondering during the ceremony if he might be on his way.

Some years ago, he wrote wonderfully well as national correspondent and editorial writer for The New York Times. He had worked briefly as a writing coach at The Sun. A star to some of us, he was nevertheless essentially anonymous in the wider world.

And then he came upon some unsought name recognition.

He was diagnosed a year or so ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS. In addition to whatever shock and fear he might have felt at the moment, he saw opportunity in this.

Soon, he and his friend Tom Hall of WYPR were talking periodically on WYPR’s “Maryland Morning with Sheila Kast.” And there was a third member of this conversation.

An advance booking

Dudley and Tom called him “Lou,” after Lou Gehrig, the Yankees ballplayer whose life and career were ended by ALS. Giving the disease a name, he wrote in The New York Times last July, made it feel “less threatening.”

And how did it feel, actually, to have ALS? “Like anxious butterflies trying to get out.” He would not shrink from more graphic descriptions of what would come later.

So there was Dudley in print and on the radio speaking in lovely Southern tones of how he was coping with “Lou” and the onset of death. He had drawn one of the shortest straws, but he knew others were facing similar trials.

At one point, he asserted his determination to call the tune, to set the time and place and manner of his going. In the end, he was as much at the mercy of the fates as any of us. He probably would have had a good laugh at himself over that one.

In the matter of not being at the party, he had done all he could to leave it in capable hands. His friend, Taylor Branch, chronicler of the King years in America, and Linda Ellerbe, a friend from their Vanderbilt University days and a TV personality, gave heartfelt and funny tributes.

The Rev. T. Stewart Lucas, who had known Dudley in Baltimore for 11 years, recalled getting an email asking for an “advance booking.” When the time came, in other words, would Lucas officiate?

No role playing

At a reception after the funeral, one of Dudley’s college roommates told me of how he came to appreciate his friend’s approach to life and to people. He seemed in part an archetype of the Southern Gentleman, graciously and effusively attentive to his parents and their friends.

It was no bit of role playing. He was that way with everyone he met, his old friend discovered.

I didn’t know Dudley as well as I do now thanks to Rev. Lucas and Tom Hall and so many others in our community who have written and spoken about him. A nice pastel sketch of him captured his somewhat avuncular expression – with a stream of colorful butterflies encircling him.

Dudley described his life in the Times last July:

“I’m dancing, spinning around, and happy in the life I love. When the music stops – when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney [his daughter], kiss someone special or tap out lines like this – I’ll know that Life is over.”

Many more of us can know Dudley thanks to media. In all his eccentricity, he was yet Everyman. Radio and TV, movies and newspapers are the great amplifiers. They frame the picture. We see in Dudley, not a mirror image of ourselves, but a repeatable narrative of striving.

We marvel at those of us who, by laughter and grace and courage, bring a measure of peace and order to chaos.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is