Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about the life of North Kenai’s George Coe Dudley, whose funeral more than 40 years ago became the stuff of local legend. Part one examines Dudley’s early life. Next week’s story will focus on his later years and the funeral itself.
By Clark Fair
One of the highlights of Rusty Lancashire’s re-telling of George Dudley’s 1967 muddy, drunken mess of a funeral involved the moment that one of the attendees fell into the open grave.
Lancashire, who lived in the Ridgeway area for more than 50 years, took such delight in the story that she told it repeatedly, and many longtime residents across the central Kenai Peninsula still remember hearing the tale.
One of those listeners was Peggy Arness, who still chuckles at the memory of Lancashire’s narration.
“Rusty’s rendition of it was hysterical,” said Arness, who, along with her husband, Jim, once employed Dudley as a longshoreman at their Nikiski dock.
Another person who heard Lancashire tell the story was Soldotna’s Al Hershberger, who first met Dudley in about 1950 and remembers much of Dudley’s early history.
“Ah yes, George Dudley, an unforgettable character,” said Hershberger. “Dudley was an easygoing, laid-back sort of guy, always laughing and joking, as well as hard drinking.”
But there may be only one person still living who was an actual eye witness to the funeral, and that is Hedley “Hank” Parsons, who was a laborer on the central peninsula for more than 30 years before moving back to his home state of New Hampshire in 1984.
“I was working for Morrison-Knudsen at the time on the White Alice project,” Parsons recalled. “We’d take a trip or two into Kenai about every day for something, and I guess the funeral was kind of news, and so I swung in and visited.”
Parsons’ remembrance of the scene on that May 5 afternoon matches in most respects the story told by Rusty Lancashire, and it also matches a recently discovered, unsigned letter that colorfully describes the funeral in great detail. The letter was found in a cardboard box of unrelated materials recently donated to the Anthropology Lab at Kenai Peninsula College.
Addressed “Dear Hugh,” the letter begins with a lament for “the passing of Kenai from the scene as a community completely unique” and then offers up the Dudley funeral story as proof that the “old special flavor of Kenai” has not altogether vanished.
Because the letter refers to Hugh having “dealings with George over right of way,” several longtime residents have concluded that the recipient of the letter must have been Hugh Malone, who was a surveyor at the time and later went on to serve first on the Kenai City Council, and later in the state Legislature.
The identity of the letter writer, however, remains murky, although the writer is almost certainly a man. At one point, the writer appears to identify his occupation: “I don’t like funerals. I think they are barbaric and years ago swore that the next funeral I attended would be my own, and if I could manage, I’d skip that one, too, but somehow, after a few drinks, and swapping lies with a couple of other divers at Larry’s (Club) it seemed the thing to do.”
Divers were being employed at the time during the construction and erection of oil-drilling platforms in Cook Inlet, and several longtime area residents were unable to recall a single female diver working at that time.
Despite the writer’s reluctance to attend funerals, he seemed delighted that he made the effort to go to Dudley’s: “I’m glad I went. It was a funeral to end all funerals, and it and the wake that followed could happen only in Kenai, believe me.”
On the morning of the funeral — a Friday — a death notice appeared in The Cheechako News on page 13, featuring this headline: “North Kenai Man Found Dead In His Home.” The four-paragraph article identified 58-year-old George Coe Dudley as the deceased, and said that he had been found on Sunday by Robert Murray, a longtime friend who had been staying with Dudley for a number of years.
Dudley, said the article, was a commercial fisherman who had been born in California on Feb. 23, 1909, had worked for the Alaska Railroad, had once operated a hotel in Anchorage, and who had spent the last 33 years of his life in Alaska.
The article set the time of Dudley’s passing as 4 a.m. and had attributed the death to “natural causes.”
However, neither this small collection of facts nor the simple wooden cross bearing a small brass nameplate in the Kenai Cemetery adequately describes the man George Coe Dudley was and explains why his funeral became such a wild affair.
To understand these things, one must look further back in time.
A 25-year-old George Dudley made his way to Anchorage probably in 1934. For much of the next 14 years, he would experience great success, but also some toppling failures. For instance, Al Hershberger remembers Dudley telling him that at one time the beloved Alaska painter Sydney Laurence gave him one of his paintings — one of the many symbols of his financial good fortune that eventually disappeared.
“Dudley was a con artist when it came to getting a drink, as most alcoholics are, but he was not a person given to making up stories about things he had done,” Hershberger said.
Although the timeline of Dudley’s life events is not well-known, he did at some point work for the Alaska Railroad. He also built and was an owner of the Lind-Dudley Hotel in the Spenard area, and he was married to the daughter of prominent Anchorage attorney and president of the Anchorage Bar Association, George Grigsby.
“How he ever met Grigsby — how he ever got in with that family — I really don’t know,” said Hedley Parsons. “He might’ve been from kind of halfway civilized family before he came to Alaska.”
After the marriage ended in divorce, according to Hershberger, “the ex-wife was blamed (by Dudley) for the demise of his fortunes. This may or may not have been the case.”
Single again and down on his luck, Dudley made his way to Portage and a road construction job. It was in Portage in 1948 that he met Parsons, who also was doing roadwork. Parsons liked Dudley personally but called him a “derelict,” recalling that Dudley spent most of his spare time in Portage’s two or three shacklike bars, which were powered by individual light plants and had sprung up to support and to leach the incomes from road workers.
Another of the road men there, Robert Murray, befriended Dudley at this time. Murray, who would become one of the earliest homesteaders along the shores of Longmere Lake, brought Dudley with him to the peninsula in either 1949 or 1950 and allowed him to stay for some time at his place. Murray thought so much of his friend that he named an east-west road off Murray Lane in Murray Lake Subdivision No. 1 “Dudley Avenue.”
Dudley eventually settled on a homestead of his own in North Kenai. He acquired a commercial fishing site just south of the Arness Supply Dock, where he worked as a longshoreman during the 1960s.
It was shortly after his move to North Kenai that Dudley became acquainted with Edith “Eadie” Henderson, the renowned proprietor of the Last Frontier Dine & Dance Club — the establishment that was located near the Wildwood Station to attract military clientele as well as Kenai’s large number of fishermen and oil workers, and that was more commonly referred to simply as “Eadie’s.”
“He was a habitué of Eadie’s just for, uh, ‘sociability,’” recalled Parsons. “He had nothing else to do. That was his second home, and probably in his own environment out there at his homestead he didn’t have much of anything. Probably Dudley went to Eadie’s all the time to either keep warm or to socialize and drink — ‘cause he had nothing else in life.”
“Dudley was a good guy,” Parsons said. “He was harmless. He was his own worst enemy, really. And of course, Eadie, she plied him with the booze, and she let him flop out on the floor at night instead of finding his way out north to his homestead.
“He was always welcome there because Eadie was due the few bucks he had left, you know, and he probably was a handyman there, doing chores and stuff like that, to keep Eadie going and keep the lights on.”
The high living of previous years was gone for good, but the end was still a few years off. For George Dudley, the downward spiral had not yet reached its nadir.