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Dudley Clendinen, Tampa-born journalist and author, dies of ALS at 67

"Everyone has to die, but not many of us are asked to talk about it," Dudley Clendinen said in a 2011 interview.

Mr. Clendinen, a journalist and author who was born in Tampa, died Wednesday night in Baltimore. He was 67. He had been diagnosed in November 2010 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, a terminal neurodegenerative condition for which there is no treatment or cure.

In the last year of his life, he indeed talked and wrote about his approaching death, in a widely reprinted column for the New York Times titled A Good Short Life, in a series of radio broadcasts and in a book he worked on into his last days.

Tom Hall, the radio host who worked with Mr. Clendinen on "Living With Lou: Dudley Clendinen on a Good Short Life" on WYPR in Baltimore, and a friend of 20 years, said Thursday, "He gave people a language they desperately needed for talking about death and dying, which also taught us a lot about living."

Mr. Clendinen was born in Tampa in 1944. His father, James Clendinen, was the longtime editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune who championed reforms in state government; his mother, Bobbie, was that newspaper's food and society editor. Mr. Clendinen grew up in Sunset Park and graduated from Plant High School and Vanderbilt University.

He followed in his parents' journalistic footsteps, working as a reporter and editor at the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Baltimore Sun.

His life experiences were reflected in the books he wrote. After coming to terms with his homosexuality in his 40s, he co-wrote, with New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, published in 1999.

In 2008, he published A Place Called Canterbury: Tales From the New Old Age, an account of the lives of the residents of Canterbury Towers, a luxury retirement community on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. Bobbie Clendinen lived there for the last 13 years of her life, and her son grew close to many of the residents and staff. The book also paints an evocative portrait of Tampa in the days of Mr. Clendinen's youth.

He intended to write two more books about Canterbury Towers, but the diagnosis of ALS, and doctors' estimates that he had one to three years to live, changed his plans.

In A Good Short Life, published in the New York Times in July 2011, he wrote, with elegant understatement, that ALS "is not a kind disease." The variety he had "begins in the muscles of the mouth and throat and chest and abdomen, and works its way down and out," a particularly cruel fate for a brilliant raconteur like Mr. Clendinen, whose speech soon slurred and stalled. ALS would, he knew, leave him "a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self."

In the column, he wrote frankly not only about the disease but about his decision that, before he reached its final stages, he might kill himself.

"No thank you," he wrote, "I hate being a drag. I don't think I'll stick around for the back half of Lou."

He received thousands of responses from around the world, most of them supportive, thanking him for bringing the issue into the light. He continued to talk about dying in a series of radio broadcasts on WYPR from February 2011 until January of this year, when his voice had deteriorated so much he couldn't continue. (The series is archived at mdmorn.wordpress.com/.)

Hall, the series' host, was with Mr. Clendinen when he died. "He was incredibly mentally and intellectually vigorous and funny to the very end. The disease didn't affect that. It affected everything else, but not his mind."

Mr. Clendinen continued to live at his home until Wednesday afternoon. "He went very quickly," Hall said, entering hospice care at Joseph Richey Hospice in Baltimore and dying six hours later.

Mr. Clendinen did not, Hall said, take steps to end his own life. "It was the course of the disease." Hall said he had, after much soul searching, consented to a feeding tube in February. "After he got a book contract (with Algonguin) in August '11, he really wanted to stay around long enough to finish it.

"I don't know if it was finished to his satisfaction, but there will be a book."

Mr. Clendinen is survived by his daughter, Whitney of Baltimore, and a sister, Melissa Spring of Tampa.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Dudley Clendinen, Tampa-born journalist and author, dies of ALS at 67 05/31/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 31, 2012 11:01pm]

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