COLUMBIA — Daryl Dudley lives by a simple mantra: “If you wake up, it’s a perfect day.”
Perhaps that kind of optimism is a circumstance of Dudley's 55 years. Nearly 36 years ago, an accident wiped away three months of his life. His wife, Rita, is undergoing treatment for her second bout with cancer in the past six years. During his first term as a councilman, some of his constituents circulated a petition to have him recalled.
Hardly the stuff of perfect days.
But Dudley lets none of that get him down. Whether he's battling ill health or public perception, Dudley has a universal response to every challenge:
“Life is an adventure. Please keep your head and hands inside the vehicle at all times when the vehicle is moving.”
• • •
Dudley grew up on a cattle farm in the rural town of Iowa Falls, Iowa. He spent his days fishing for catfish and bass and hunting rabbits, squirrels and pheasants, until tragedy struck a week before his 12thbirthday. His father died unexpectedly because of complications from diabetes.
“Good birthday present,” Dudley said. He can’t help but smile grimly about the timing. “But it worked out well for him because he was blind, he had diabetes, and he was in very bad health. He is not in pain anymore.”
Dudley graduated from Iowa Falls High School in 1976 before enrolling at Ellsworth Community College, also in Iowa Falls. It was there, while standing in line to sign up for classes, that he met a woman named Rita.
“I thought she was cute, and she thought I was weird,” Dudley said. “We got married five years later.”
Dudley spent a year and half studying zoology at Ellsworth before enrolling at Iowa State University to pursue a degree in his life's passion: herpetology, the study of snakes.
“I never understood why big people were afraid of snakes, because guess what?” Dudley said. “They’re just tiny little critters.”
Dudley used to own snakes and said rattlesnakes are his specialty because they are the most interesting. At one point in college, he said that he had the largest rattlesnake collection — public or private — in the state of Iowa.
In all, he had 32 snakes in his basement. He said that to this day, he has never been bitten by a poisonous snake, though the harmless ones have gotten a few nips in.
His passion for rattlesnakes eventually sent him to Arizona, as most species of rattlers live in the American Southwest. While there, he worked for a company that sold reloading equipment for metallic cartridges for rifles and handguns.
He moved to Columbia to work for Midway Arms as a ballistician and wrote reloading manuals. He left for Virginia in 1995 to work for a propellant manufacturing company.
The company had some cutbacks, Dudley said, and he and Rita Dudley missed living in Columbia. She had already worked for Hy-Vee before leaving for Virginia, so they came back in 2002 and both began working for the company. Dudley has managed the gas station and convenience store at the Hy-Vee on West Broadway ever since, and he takes it upon himself to know every customer who comes through.
"How are you today?" Dudley asked each one with a smile and a wave. He doesn't know all of them by name, but it isn't for a lack of effort.
Most respond — "Hey, Daryl" — and they chat with him for a little bit.
"If I don't know your name the first two times coming in here, I'll know you the third," he said.
• • •
Dudley can't remember the three months of his life that began the morning of July 31, 1977. That was the day he was riding his Kawasaki motorcycle when a woman in a station wagon hit him head-on. The crash broke “every bone left of center,” he said.
“I was in a coma for 11 days,” he said. “They had to teach me how to walk and talk all over again. I don’t remember six hours before (the accident) or 11 weeks after.”
Dudley doesn't ride motorcycles much these days, but not because of the crash. He simply doesn't own one, but he would ride again if the opportunity presented itself.
Some might consider the prospect of losing a significant chunk of one's life scary. Not Dudley.
“It’s actually pretty cool,” he said. “I met a whole lot of nice nurses."
That’s Dudley’s way of looking at it. He also brushes off less threatening challenges. Like the fact that he's colorblind. That's why he usually wears blues, blacks and grays. He knows they won't clash.
While he lived in Phoenix, allergies plagued him so badly that he needed daily injections of medicine in each arm simply to breath.
Dudley is also helping his wife tackle health issues of her own. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, but she fought it off. In recognition of her sickness — and in honor of her triumph — each day, Dudleyaffixes two pins to the tie he picks from his collection of 500.
One pin reads “Cancer sucks.” The other pin features a green awareness ribbon bearing the name "Rita."
Five years and two months after Rita Dudley's cancer was declared gone, it came back.
“I’m a double cancer survivor,” she said. “We’ll know more in a few weeks, but I’m staying optimistic.” It’s a trait she said she learned from her husband.
Dudley doesn’t complain about the situation at all.
“My wife’s got cancer, I was nearly killed in an accident, and you know what?” Dudley said. “I’ve never had a bad day in my life.”
• • •
Dudley was the unknown council candidate in 2010. He filed the paperwork to run for the Fourth Ward seat on the last possible day because nobody knew who he was. He wanted to be the last candidate on the ballot.
He entered the race against three other candidates because his customers at Hy-Vee often expressed their opinions and frustrations about city issues to him, he said. Eventually, they told him he should run.
In the end, he won the election with 36.1 percent of the vote, just 59 votes ahead of second-place finisher Tracy Greever-Rice.
This time around, Dudley needed no prompting. He filed for his re-election campaign as soon as possible. This time, he wanted voters to see his name first.
After narrowly winning the four-way race in 2010, Dudley, who had never held public office before, was a councilman. He had to adjust quickly.
“I had no idea it was going to take 30 to 40 hours a week,” he said. “I had no idea there was so much reading to be done. This is an extremely engaged community, and so there are people who come to talk on almost every item on the (City Council) agenda. That came as a surprise to me.”
In addition to the time he puts in as a council member, Dudley also works more than 40 hours a week at the Hy-Vee gas station.
“He doesn’t require much sleep,” Rita Dudley said, with a laugh. “He’s someone who can operate with only four hours a night.”
Dudley recalls his first term fondly. Three times in three years, he walked into the dining area at Hy-Vee to find customers applauding him for a decision the council reached the night before, he said. The last time that happened, he said, was after a tie vote in January killed the idea of placing a moratorium on demolitions downtown.
Still, not every decision he has made was met with applause.
In late 2011, some Fourth Ward residents circulated a petition to remove Dudley from office after he proposed a controversial redistricting map. The petition accused him of ignoring the public and attempting to gerrymander the wards to cut out neighborhoods that didn’t vote for him.
The petition ultimately failed. So did Dudley’s proposed plan. He cast the lone vote against the redistricting map that was approved.
Despite the recall attempt, he said he isn't bitter about the ordeal.
“The people that were trying to put the recall on me, while I think it was misplaced, I will defend their right to have a recall anytime they want,” Dudley said. “It is the right of the people to hold their governing people accountable. And while we did not agree, it does not mean we cannot be friends.”
Besides, Dudley said, “If everyone agreed on everything, it wouldn’t be very much fun.”
Although Dudley recently received an endorsement from the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, his campaign is far from over. There are forums to attend, neighborhoods to canvas and interviews to conduct.
Throughout the entire process, win or lose, Dudley will keep his head and hands inside the vehicle.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.