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Richard Dudman, Prominent Journalist Once Imprisoned in Cambodia, Dies at 99

Mark Vogelzang
Maine Public
Richard Dudman in 2012

Richard Dudman, an American newsman who rose to prominence in the 1970s and later made his home in Maine, has died. The Ellsworth American reported that Dudman passed away at a retirement community in Blue Hill. He was 99.

Dudman said he started out wanting to become a doctor, but that all changed shortly after he arrived at Stanford.

“On the first day they started me out in biology class and I had to dissect a frog. I didn’t like the smell. Didn’t like the whole thing, and I quickly decided biology was not for me. But about the same time my roommate came in and says, ‘I’m going to try out for the Stanford Daily,’ and I did and was hooked quickly and actually spent more time in the Stanford Daily than I did in classes,” he said.

Dudman’s 70-year career had a number of highlights, including his capture and imprisonment by the Viet Cong in Cambodia in 1970. In an interview with Maine Public in 2009, Dudman recalled how he and two other journalists were taken into custody after coming upon a roadblock on the way Phnom Penh.

“They marched us into the jungle with our hands up, like this. I was older than these other two reporters and felt it was my responsibility to keep their spirits up, so I said, ‘You know, if we get out of here alive, we’re going to have one hell of a good story.’ And it was partly a joke, but I meant it too. It was hazardous, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see the other side of this war that we’d known only from our own side,” he said.

Dudman was held prisoner for over a month, and the harrowing tale was the subject of his memoir, “Forty Days with the Enemy.”

Later, in 1978, after the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, Dudman came to interview and photograph Pol Pot. He narrowly escaped being shot that same night. Another western visitor in the group was killed.

During his career at the Denver Post and later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal. He was blacklisted by the Nixon administration, appearing on the president’s notorious “enemies list.”

Dudman said that throughout his career, he set a firm standard for reporters.

“I used to tell my staff, ‘You gotta be fast, do it accurately and do it fairly,’ and some wiseapple would say, ‘In what order?’ and I’d say, ‘You gotta do all three at the same time,’“

Dudman and his wife, Helen, retired to Maine, where they kept a permanent home in Ellsworth and a vacation cottage on Little Cranberry Island. He continued to take special assignments from the Post-Dispatch and he became a contributing editor for the Bangor Daily News.

According to the newspaper’s archives, he wrote over 1,000 opinion pieces over the span of 12 years.

Dudman retired from the BDN five years ago, ending 76 years of newspaper writing. He said he often gave a piece of advice to young reporters just starting out.

“I tell them first, they’re performing a vital function. Because a democracy that’s not an informed democracy is going to fail,” he said.

According to the Ellsworth American, Helen, his daughters and other family members were with Dudman when he died Thursday morning.

For disclosure, Helen Dudman is a former member of the Maine Public board of trustees.