LEBANON – Terri Dudley, who played a central role in Lebanese politics for more than 50 years, died on Monday. She was 92 years old.
Known for both her charm and determination, the Lebanese native served as a city councilor, mayor and state legislator during a term in municipal government that began in 1958.
Dudley was also a pioneer in the business world as the first female director of advertising for a New England daily newspaper, the first female president of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and the first woman to lead the Rotary Club of Lebanon. At the heart of all her efforts was a commitment to her hometown, said Nancy Merrill, Dudley’s longtime friend.
“She loved, loved everything about Lebanon,” Merrill, herself a former mayor of Lebanon who now works for the city of Claremont, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
In addition to her ties to Lebanese rulers, Dudley was a familiar face in parts of the city, where she had known families for generations, Merrill said.
“Honestly, she knew everyone and every kid was wonderful,” Merrill said. “She never had bad things to say.”
Dudley played a central role in transforming Lebanon from a small rural mill town to becoming the hub of the Upper Valley.
As a young Valley News journalist in the late 1950s, she showed up with another journalist to copy tax records in what was then City Hall, days before a referendum on whether Lebanon should pass from a city to a form of municipal government.
However, Dudley and his colleague were kicked out of town hall by the powerful Selectman Joe Perley. Some attributed to the resulting stories of the lack of transparency tilting the vote in favor of a city form of government.
Dudley, who worked at Valley News for 37 years, became a newspaper columnist and then headed the advertising department. (After retiring from the newspaper but remained active in city politics, she was known to visit the newsroom to participate in a pool of NCAA basketball brackets).
She first entered municipal government in 1958 as a neighborhood clerk and led the diversion program of the Lebanese juvenile court between 1976 and 1994.
“She served everything,” said Paul Boucher, the former executive director of the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, who recalled both her outgoing personality and her commitment to civic life.
She has also served on the boards of directors of United Way, LISTEN, Lebanon College, Upper Valley Credit Union, and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital.
When she was not volunteering, Dudley helped raise her children. Dudley and her husband Roger, married for 72 years, had three children and raised five children in foster care. In 2014, she told the Lebanon Times that raising a family was his greatest achievement.
In 1990, Dudley was elected to city council, where she then served intermittently for the next two decades.
Former Lebanon mayor Patrick Hayes said Dudley brought compassion and common sense to the role. She also became known as the defender of West Lebanon, her longtime home.
“She has always stood up for western Lebanon, trying to keep this vibrant part of Lebanon alive,” said Hayes, adding that her long-term goal was to better connect the two sides of the city. For her part, Dudley said she had always considered herself a long-time resident of the city of Lebanon.
His plea was commemorated in 2009 when the legislature passed a bill naming the bridge over the Mascoma River on Route 4 between Miracle Mile and Seminary Hill the Terri Dudley Bridge.
The bridge has become a de facto link between Lebanon and West Lebanon, connecting the two parts of the city.
“It’s symbolic of the work she’s done,” said then State Representative Laurie Harding, co-sponsor of the Bridge Name Bill. “Terri certainly played a very important role in reminding people that we are no longer two different communities. ”
Dudley’s service extended to the Legislative Assembly, where she served three terms as a Republican representing Lebanon in the House, starting in 1999.
Former Rep. Ralph Akins, who served alongside Dudley, said she was “calm, collected and thoughtful.” He added that Dudley was known for her research into issues before big votes, contributing to her reputation as a “reliable and reasonable” member of the Republican caucus.
While conservative, Dudley supported measures to support the state’s less fortunate residents, Akins said. He recalled a bill aimed at facilitating the access of the elderly to tax exemptions. Dudley was quick to support the effort, suggesting language to reinforce it, Akins said.
“She just seemed like a very caring person,” he said. “She tried to think of things she could do to make life better for others.”
Dudley later said she tried to bring a non-partisan approach to her work at Concord.
“Whatever party you belong to, you are elected by the people,” she told the Valley News in 2013. “They’re not all Republicans, they’re not all Democrats. When you represent someone, you are supposed to represent everyone.
Dudley retired from the legislature in 2005 and resigned from city council in 2009. However, she continued to keep an eye on Lebanese politics.
State Senator Sue Prentiss, D-Lebanon, said Dudley was a mentor when she ran for city council in 2007, even though the two were opponents.
Prentiss lost that race, but when she finally took over from Dudley on council in 2009, she said, the former mayor was still available to advise on meeting agendas, preparation for debates and taking into account the needs of western Lebanon.
“She was that voice of western Lebanon,” Prentiss said, adding that the advocacy often extended outside the neighborhood. “She gave the city a lot of time. It was his passion.
Dudley also continued to host his weekend talk show, “Sunday Mornings with Terri Dudley” on WTSL in western Lebanon, until his retirement from radio in 2013.
After leaving the station, she called the Haute Vallée “the best place on Earth to live”.
“You always feel welcome here, no matter what your fate in life is, and the friendships last a lifetime,” Dudley wrote in a letter to the Valley News, thanking the community.
Tim Camerato can be contacted at [email protected] or 603-727-3223.