Writer Dudley Clendinen dies of ALS at age 67

Dudley Clendinen relished nothing more than telling a great story — even the story of his impending death.

A journalist and author who wrote for The New York Times and had once served as an editor for The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Clendinen died Wednesday at Baltimore's Joseph Richey House hospice of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 67.

He chronicled his 18-month struggle with the condition commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease on Baltimore public radio station WYPR in a series titled "Living with Lou: Dudley Clendinen on a Good, Short Life."

"I remember him telling me, 'It's official. I have ALS, and I want to tell this story,'" said longtime friend Tom Hall, a host of WYPR's "Maryland Morning" whose interview questions helped frame Mr. Clendinen's radio pieces. "He said, 'It's the last great story I will tell. The only difference is, I will be the protagonist.'"

"Living with Lou" began airing on WYPR in February 2011; the last piece aired Jan. 30. Over the course of the year, in segments broadcast every other Monday, Mr. Clendinen would talk about the incurable degenerative disease taking over his body.

He would talk about living with ALS, about spending time with his friends and family, about suicide, about health care policy, about the prospect of hospice care. No topic was off limits, and the result was a candid and honest account of a man staring down his final days. By turns funny and poignant, engaging and heartbreaking, it became a hit with listeners.

"People responded to [the segments] immediately," said Mr. Hall, who was with his friend on the day he died. "The listeners felt they got to know Dudley. Everywhere I go in town, people ask, 'How's Dudley?' In restaurants, farmers' markets, grocery stores."

Even when ALS made it difficult for him to talk, Mr. Clendinen relished the chance to continue telling his story. He loved engaging people, friends and family said. And he hoped the pieces he was producing for radio — as well as an essay published in The New York Times last July and a memoir he was working on — would make it easier for people to talk about death and dying.

"He felt it was important to describe in detail all the subtle stages of transformation that occur," said Joshua Batten, Mr. Clendinen's friend and housemate. "His illness was so drawn-out, but he was somebody who found it so important to live in the moment, to describe the moment, and to continue to make lemonade out of lemons."

A graduate of Plant High School in his native Tampa, Fla., James Dudley Clendinen came by his writing chops honestly. His father, James, was chairman of the editorial board of the Tampa Tribune; his mother, Barbara Harrison Clendinen, was the paper's food and society editor. After earning a degree in history in 1968 from Vanderbilt University, Mr. Clendinen worked as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.

Mr. Clendinen's journalism career encompassed roughly 30 years and included two stints at The New York Times, plus editing roles at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Sun. He covered a range of sensitive and far-reaching topics, including politics, health care, homelessness and — especially after publicly acknowledging his own homosexuality — gay rights.

He wrote two books, 1999's "Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America" and 2008's "A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America," an ennobling and deceptively joyous look at life in a Tampa retirement home where his mother spent her final years. He continued writing freelance newspaper pieces and taught writing at the University of Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins University. He had lived in Baltimore since coming to work for The Sun in the early 1990s.

A recovering alcoholic who proudly spent the last 22 years of his life sober, Mr. Clendinen began developing slurred speech in May 2010. It took six months for doctors to confirm his suspicions — that he was suffering from ALS. It was attacking his vocal cords, tongue and diaphragm, making it difficult for him to talk.

But Mr. Clendinen decided to use what time he had left — doctors gave him from one to three years to live — to let people know how the disease was affecting him, and to try and make things easier on his family and friends. At the suggestion of Mr. Hall, he began recording "Living with Lou."

His sister, Melissa Spring, said that decision was typical of her brother. "He always used his storytelling as a stage for whatever phase of life he was going through," she said. The radio pieces, she added, "taught me much about courage and living life."

In his first piece, which aired Feb. 21, 2011, Mr. Clendinen recalled the day the diagnosis of ALS was confirmed. Typical of the series, his thoughts were clear-eyed and not self-pitying, in equal measures honest and humorous.

"I'd had thoughts before," he told Mr. Hall, "as a dramatic adolescent, of running my car into a wall, and the Hallelujah Chorus comes out saying how great I was, and how good it was to know me, and how much they're going to miss me. I came out of the medical building to an empty parking lot and no Hallelujah Chorus. There was nobody to tell me how anybody felt, and I wasn't sure how I felt. We don't get prepared for that. Among the things life does not prepare us for is the news that we're going to die a lot sooner than we thought."

Work on his book wasn't complete when he died, but Mr. Clendinen had prepared for that, lining up several friends to tie up any loose ends he left behind.

"Dudley was going to tell this last story as best he could," said author and Boston Globe reporter Sally Jacobs, one of the half-dozen or so friends he tasked with finishing the book if he couldn't. "It was his big swan song, and he was going to enjoy it."

A memorial service is set for 10 a.m. Monday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, 4 E. University Parkway.

Mr. Clendinen is survived by his daughter, Whitney Clendinen, of Silver Spring, and by his sister, who lives in Tampa. His marriage to Nancy Barrett ended in divorce.


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