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2015 RNA Lifetime Achievement Recipient Announced

Thursday, June 18, 2015  
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Richard Dujardin to be honored with the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 RNA Annual Conference in Philadelphia.

by Peter Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, photo provided by Richard Dujardin

When Richard Dujardin was offered the religion writer job at the Providence Journal in 1977, where he’d started working more than a decade earlier, he hesitated.

Wouldn’t he soon run out of story ideas?

“I was about to say ‘no’ when the outgoing reporter assured me I would never run out of things to write about, that in fact there were so many things going on in the world of religion that my list of stories would only grow,” he recalls.

Dujardin took the job, never regretted it, and the story ideas just kept coming as he covered the heavily Catholic but also highly diverse religious population of Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts. Along the way in a career that lasted another 36 years, Dujardin traveled widely to cover Pope John Paul II, interviewed a future pope and a past U.S. president, covered Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and the Dalai Lama and reported countless stories about the ordinary clergy members, congregations and lay people in the smallest — but arguably feistiest — state in the Union.

Dujardin, who won numerous awards from RNA and other organizations through the years, now has to make room on his wall for another: the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion Newswriters Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

How long has Dujardin been on the beat? Early on, he recalls standing on a roof overlooking St. Peter’s Square in 1978, awaiting the start of the installation of Pope John Paul II, “and thinking that I would want to be there as well for the installation of the next pope whenever that was.”

“Whenever” would take place only after one of the longest papacies in history, but Dujardin was there in 2005 to cover the installation of Benedict XVI. And in 2013, Dujardin was in Rome yet again, covering the installation of Pope Francis.

“Religion writing, as most of us in the field know, is a satisfying experience,” said Dujardin, who retired from the Journal later in 2013. “It allows us to ask important questions that most other reporters usually ignore, allowing us to ask people about their faith lives and to see what really makes them tick. As it is, a lot of motivation behind the good things people do springs from their faith and from the way they perceive God.”

Dujardin also served in numerous roles at RNA, including two years as president in the mid-1990s.

“Richard served as RNA president and on the board at a time when the organization was still volunteer-run and when you joined the board, it was typically for eight or more years,” said RNA Executive Director Debra Mason. “Imagine trying to run an organization pre-Internet, when the officers changed every two years and all correspondence was done via the U.S. Post Office. Richard was a gracious and kind presence as he led RNA during an era of increased growth and scrutiny on the beat.”

Dujardin did all this even as he and his wife of nearly 47 years, Rose Marie, raised their six children. Longtime RNAers have gotten to know Rose Marie, who has joined her husband at many of our annual conferences.

Dujardin was born in New York City in 1944 and grew up in the borough of Queens and the Long Island village of Merrick. He went to Chaminade, an all-boys Catholic high school on Long Island, and then to Fordham University, where he served on the school newspaper and majored in Communication Arts - Journalism.

He started at the Providence Journal just two weeks after graduating in 1966. The only hiatus from his career there came during a three-and-a-half year period as an officer with the U.S. Naval Reserve, which included service aboard an ocean-going tug and as navigator on the USS Butte, a Navy ammunition ship. He made regular visits to the Mediterranean and the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba. Collateral duties included public affairs and serving as a religious lay leader.

“When I returned to civilian life in 1971, I immediately returned to my old job covering local news in one of the Providence Journal's suburban news bureaus, discovering the politicians were still wrestling with the same issues they had been debating before my absence,” he recalled.

While he had written a story about the Latin Mass early in his career, it wasn’t until the 1975 retirement of Journal's veteran religion writer, Bob Whittaker (one of RNA’s founders), that he applied for the job. Another reporter got it – then asked to be transferred to the State House two years later. “It's a move, he told me later, that he wished he had never made,” Dujardin recalled. Dujardin succeeded him on the Godbeat and never regretted it.

“All of us who became religion writers when Pope John Paul II came on the scene were, I think, very fortunate,” he recalled. “Because of John Paul's travels, many of us on the religion beat became the most traveled reporters on our respective staffs (except perhaps for travel writers and those covering sports teams).”

Particularly memorable was John Paul’s visit to San Antonio in 1987, when Dujardin was pool reporter for a day, staying close to the pope and speaking with him several times.

Dujardin also recalls his brief interview with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger after the future pope spoke at a Lutheran church in New York City; and an unexpected meeting with former President Jimmy Carter, who had dropped in on a worship service at Providence's historic First Baptist Church in America.

Other memories

“I remember having several late-night drinks with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin during a Catholic bishops meeting in Washington as he described having to scramble to put together a speech about nuclear warfare the night before he delivered it, after learning that his fellow bishops and the media were expecting him to say something on the topic.

“I also recall driving around Missouri with then-Bishop Bernard Law to visit a Carmelite monastery a few days before he was to go to Boston to become the city's next archbishop — and sitting on a veranda in the Virgin Islands with Sean O'Malley, just before he headed north to become the Catholic bishop of Fall River and ultimately Law's successor as Boston's cardinal archbishop.

Closer to home, one of his most rewarding stories was of Rhode Island’s Muslim community, coming soon after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He’s covered many stories about parish closings, Rosh Hashana reflections, clergy crimes, politicized communion wars and the faith-based responses to disasters. Particularly poignant was his story on the closing of Rhode Island’s Episcopal cathedral due to membership decline – and his interview with actress Jayne Meadows, whose memories of the cathedral stretch back to when her father was dean there.

Dujardin received such awards as RNA's Schachern, for the best religion section, in 1981; the Supple Award for excellence in Religion Writing, in 1986; and the Templeton Reporter of the Year award in 1991. He also received three Wilbur Awards from what is now the Religion Communicators Council and several honors from the Rhode Island Press Association.

He began attending RNA conferences in 1977 and later served as secretary, treasurer and first vice president before serving two years as president in the mid-1990s.

When the Journal was sold to the Texas-based Belo Corp. in the late 1990s, several beats were eliminated, eventually including the religion beat.

“The biggest change came early in 2009 when, after the religion page was formally eliminated, the staff was reorganized and I became a member of the breaking news team,” he recalled. “But what could have been a setback became an opportunity. Through the vehicle of breaking news I was able to cover different aspects of religion news on a timely basis. At times, covering the news in that fashion required my using some of my own resources, such as using my own frequent flyer miles to get to the 2013 papal conclave and subsequent installation. But it was all worth it.”

The Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001. Its namesake, William A. Reed, was the first African-American president of the RNA, serving from 1976-78. He was also the first African-American to work full time for The Tennessean in Nashville, and one of the first African-Americans on the religion beat.

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