Tom Bill Dudley: A Life in White Sulphur

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Tom Bill Dudley

Tom Bill Dudley lives in White Sulphur Springs.

Always has, pretty much, except for a stint in the army, which posted him in Germany. But other than that, his 75 years have been spent watching White Sulphur grow from a mid-20th Century small town, to an early 21st Century small town. As he has marked the changes in the town, the town has marked the changes in Dudley.

“My time in the military was before all of the protests on campuses. I was there while they were building the Berlin wall. I came back here after my time in the military, and got a job at Hercules Incorporated in Covington for 29 years.  They had a fire, I got laid off, and finished the last nine years at Westvaco. Covington is OK, but I really like White Sulphur. This is where I want to be.

One of Dudley’s more memorable experiences in White Sulphur Springs came last June, when his home was wiped out by the catastrophic flood. “I lost everything,” he says, “I just got out with my clothes on my back and some medicine.” His was the home that famously caught on fire and floated downstream, and he lost a relative in the incident. Dudley managed to get out of the house, holed up in a small cave for hours that night, and by morning walked to a place of shelter. Everything was lost.

In the months that followed, he lived with another relative, and eventually moved into a new home on higher ground. He’s thankful he survived, and keenly feels the losses that so many people suffered.

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“I tried to shake the Bill in my name since the seventh grade. I can’t. People know me as Tom Bill. Some people even call me Mr. Bill. They think it’s my last name, “ Dudley said.

In the 13 years since retirement, Dudley has enjoyed sports, something he had been enjoying his whole life. “I refereed the first basketball game that was played at Greenbrier East. Maybe 1968. I refereed up until last year. College, high school, JV, elementary. Mostly in the county, but sometimes we’d travel to Beckley, or Webster Springs, Princeton. I have been into sports my whole life. Coached Little League, started football in White Sulphur, started basketball in White Sulphur. And I like to fish too.”

Dudley said it keeps him young. “Stay with the kids,” he said. “Stay with the kids and it will keep you always young.” Last year, April 1, Dudley went for a regular doctor’s appointment in Beckley, and his doctor saw signs that he thought pointed to cancer. Dudley went to Richmond for tests, and the word came back: pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal types of cancer.

Dudley has done chemo. Doctors told him the cancer was inoperable, but one doctor sent him to North Carolina for an opinion from a doctor at Duke. He had a slight chance, he was told, of doing chemotherapy, which might break down the cancer enough to remove it. Dudley took his treatments on Thursdays. They made him sick for several days, and he’d be feeling better just as he was going back. But the last treatment knocked him for a loop. He did all of the treatments, but they did not change the tumor enough to make it operable.

Dudley has stopped all treatments now. He wants no more chemo, and he is talking to hospice. “Everybody thinks hospice is just for dying people. It’s not. It’s for people who are living. I’m fighting. I’m not giving up. I’m on some pain medicine. It makes me groggy. But I can still function. I still get around. I think I’m going to beat this. I really do. I think the Man Upstairs can do that.”

Dudley attends the Redemption Center, a church in White Sulphur.

Dudley likes to reflect on the years growing up. He played football in high school, at right end. “I don’t think I could have grown up during a better era. I like the time I grew up in. We didn’t have a lock on our door. We left the windows open. Kids could run with friends, and everybody was okay. Everybody knew everybody else’s business, and nobody cared.”

Dudley has two children, Amanda and Junior, both grown.

His favorite sport? Basketball. East’s best team? 1972. Warren Baker. State champs. Dudley coached Baker in Little League basketball. Dudley has worked at the scorer’s table for East games for many years. He has attended every state basketball tournament for the last 52 years, but this year he is staying home. His demeanor is upbeat, optimistic. He is always enthusiastic talking about basketball. Always happy to meet somebody new. Just generally happy, period.