A youthful 64, Tom Dudick lives life at full throttle
On Sept. 11 of this year, Tom Dudick will get married for the second time. His plans for the honeymoon include great white shark diving off Cape Town, South Africa, an activity he hopes to entice his new wife to try as well.
That’s unlikely, even though the divers on the excursion will be in cages for protection. “Lora is game for a lot of things, but she said, ‘I’m not getting in that cage,’” he says.
For Mr. Dudick, on the other hand, it will be yet another adventure. In 1999, he flew a Russian fighter jet to just over 79,000 feet above the earth and 2.5 times the speed of sound. “I flew to the edge of space,” he says. “The sky turned black. I could see the curvature of the earth.” The aircraft shook violently as he and Yuri, his Russian co-pilot, broke the sound barrier. When the temperature on the outside of the plane reached 600 degrees, Yuri told him it was time to turn back.
Mr. Dudick returned to earth pale but triumphant. “This is the only life you’ve got,” he says. “I want to do everything.”
The adventure was even more remarkable because, just five days before, Mr. Dudick had cracked his right shoulder. As a right-hander, he needed mobility in that arm to work the controls of the plane. But he wasn’t about to forfeit his trip to Moscow and the chance to fly an actual MiG-25 fighter interceptor. He kept his arm close to his side and put up with the pain. The thrill was worth it, he says.
He had hurt himself while trying to execute a jump on his Harley. He gave up on motorcycles after that but not on risky undertakings. He has canoed up the Amazon River, hiked across the Grand Canyon — he did the entire 22-mile (rim to rim) trek in only 12 hours — and faced his fear of heights by twice parachuting out of a plane. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do one, let alone 10 or 12 of the things I’ve done,” he says.
The president of Dudick Inc., a high-performance coating, flooring and tank-lining company he founded in 1970, the East Cleveland native turns 64 on Sept. 10. His other adventures have included two photographic safaris in Africa; a third, in Botswana and Zambia, is on the honeymoon itinerary.
His most profound experience occurred shortly after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997. “I’d always respected her and people like her, who give their whole lives to make a difference,” says Mr. Dudick, who decided to go to Mother Teresa’s mission while on a business trip to India. He had his youngest son with him, and the two volunteered their time for a couple of days. They were sent to work with developmentally delayed indigent men. The walls of the shelter were black with slime from the humidity; the place filthy with human waste. Their task was to bathe the men and feed each a cup of rice soup and a roll.
“One man smiled at me,” Mr. Dudick says. “He was grateful that I had done something so simple. It gave me a chill. At a basic level, I had helped that person. It was a life-changing experience.”
It made him profoundly grateful. “These people don’t even have basic medical care,” he continues. “We have great medical care.” Two years ago, Mr. Dudick had even more reason to be grateful because, he says, his access to excellent healthcare saved his life.
“There’s a history of strokes on my mother’s side. On my dad’s side, it’s heart problems,” he says. A Cleveland Clinic patient for at least three decades, he has been under the care of David Bronson, MD, now Chairman of the Medicine Institute and President of Cleveland Clinic Community Hospitals, for the past 16 years. “David knew that my attitude was to be proactive, that I didn’t want to ignore something that could become an issue. If David hadn’t been my doctor and understood my personality, I’d be dead today,” he says. “There’s no question in my mind.”
Knowing Mr. Dudick’s hypertensive personality as well as his family history, Dr. Bronson had him undergo a stress echocardiogram even though he appeared to be in perfect health. The test revealed that Mr. Dudick had an ascending aortic aneurysm. When the surgeon, Lars Svensson, MD, clamped his heart, the aneurysm started to let go, meaning that it had been ready to rupture.
Mr. Dudick had recently returned from his second African safari. Survival suddenly became his biggest adventure, one that has remained uppermost in his mind ever since his successful surgery. “Every day for almost two years,” he says, “I’ve thanked God for the life I have.”
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