Sometimes the best way to pay tribute to someone we have lost is to think about how they would have wanted to be remembered. So before doing that, let me note that on March 25, Dennis Dudley passed away peacefully at home on his 70th birthday. The reaction across the country from his many friends and colleagues was immediate and heartfelt. Yet, perhaps most unique about the reactions I read was that everyone either had a story or a picture that told its own story.
Dennis never wanted to be fawned over. He felt it was his role to fawn over his family and friends, and in his own unique way he made everyone who entered his life at whatever juncture feel special.
This tribute will not fawn over Dennis. It is about celebrating an amazing, accomplished and special life. To know Dennis was to know someone who lived life to the absolute fullest. No matter the occasion or the setting, he transformed it. If you were an indifferent or even an apathetic person, he would have none of that. You would change and be the better for it.
Consummate Public Servant
Dennis was the classic public servant. Consummate but never consumed. He recognized that his responsibility was to the aging network that he served so well but to him it was also about that individual older person whose life he could make better. Dennis was more than a bureaucrat—he was a government resource who aimed to help as many people as he could. He had many areas of expertise within his aging portfolio, including being one of the leading national experts on rural health and human services.
He served with special distinction as a federal government resource to the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services for a number of years. I now serve on that Committee and when I informed them of Dennis’s passing a number of our members were effusive in their praise of his work.
Of course, beyond his public service, Dennis had a unique way of extending his work into social settings. Many of us knew Dennis as our own personal sommelier with his infamous wine parties in hotels across the country during aging conferences—always in the smallest room the government would afford. The conversations that would ensue at these gatherings were memorable, but at the center of it all was the gracious host Dennis Dudley.
'One of the most consistent advocates for the entire aging network from the bottom to the top, and a great friend.'
I asked some of his friends and colleagues to contribute to this tribute. Mary Beals-Luedtka said, “Dennis was who introduced me to the national aging network and broadened the scope of my work and my advocacy. He was the voice for rural America. An inspiration for me and to many. He will be remembered not only for his work but for his big heart and his sense of fun and joy in life.”
A former colleague of Dennis’s at AoA/ACL, Moya Thompson, wrote, “Dennis Dudley was not only one of a kind, he was the kindest person you’d ever meet. He had a generous heart, an adventuresome spirit and the capacity to express and extend his friendship through good times and bad. Getting together with Dennis was often an experience that left you mesmerized by stories, exhausted from laughter and smiling from ear to ear for days afterward.”
And from ASA Board Member Richard Browdie, “He was one of the most consistent advocates for the entire aging network from the bottom to the top, and a great friend.”
Mensch, Mentor, Dedicated Husband
Trying to capture the entire life of Dennis Dudley is something I cannot do. However, appreciating the life of and times with Dennis Dudley is something many of us can and will do. The central figure in his life and what made him love his life is his beloved Tiina. Theirs was a special bond evident in so many ways from those things they did together to just the way they would be with each other. Tiina, thank you for sharing Dennis with so many.
Dennis Dudley, a mentor and a mensch. Humorous and humble. Sweet and never sour, gregarious and garrulous, a raconteur and a rascal. A bon vivant who also enjoyed the very basics of life.
Let me close with two quotes that seem appropriate. The first comes from an African proverb, “By his deeds we know a man.” The second comes from the great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Make yourself necessary to somebody.”
Dennis Dudley, thank you for making yourself so necessary to so many.
And finally let me close with what Dennis would always say at the end of a phone call, meeting, party, whatever it was: “Take care, man.”
Bob Blancato is president of Matz, Blancato & Associates and a former chair of ASA’s board of directors, and serves as the national coordinator of the bipartisan 3,000-member Elder Justice Coalition, the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs and national coordinator of the Defeat Malnutrition Today coalition. In 2020 he won ASA’s Hall of Fame Award.
Editor’s note: I worked with Dennis Dudley when he guest-edited the Summer 2019 issue of Generations on Rural Aging. What a delightful and unusual experience. We shared a Central Valley California history and he would call on a whim to chat and sometimes get some work done, often mentioning with a laugh when we spoke of editing tasks, “Well, I’m not a big reader.” He secured excellent contributors for that issue as people would do anything for him. Dennis was unfailingly gracious, upbeat and hilarious, and I thoroughly enjoyed the short time I spent collaborating with him.