Richard Dujardin, who reported on religion for the Providence Journal for more than 30 years, fell to his death in Milwaukee on Monday when a drawbridge was raised while he was walking across it.
His family is calling it a “crazy and random accident” and is looking for answers.
Dujardin, 77, of Providence, was crossing the Kilbourn Avenue Bridge in downtown Milwaukee on Monday afternoon with his wife, according to a Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office report.
His son, Peter Dujardin, said in a social media post that his parents had been in Milwaukee for a weekend conference and were walking to noon Mass on Monday for the Feast of the Assumption, crossing the drawbridge en route.
Rose-Marie Dujardin, his wife of 54 years, made it across the bridge spanning the Milwaukee River, but her husband was about halfway across when it began to open. He grabbed a side rail as the bridge sections rose to a 90-degree angle, but he lost his grip and fell about 70 feet to the pavement below, the medical examiner’s report states.
He suffered a head wound and was pronounced dead at the scene, investigators said.
“There’s now a police investigation into how this happened and why they opened the bridge with a person crossing it,” Peter Dujardin wrote in a Facebook group for former employees of the Providence Journal.
In an interview with the Globe late Wednesday, Peter Dujardin said that the police had not yet released much information, but “it was helpful to meet with them.”
Dujardin’s children traveled to Milwaukee to be with their mother. “We met with police and detectives,” Peter Dujardin said. “They were gracious and kind. We felt confident they are doing their best to do a thorough, diligent investigation.”
“Everyone in Milwaukee has been supportive,” he added.
Richard Dujardin joined the Providence Journal in 1966, and began reporting on religion for the paper in 1977, covering the installation of three popes, news concerning other major religious leaders including the Dalai Lama, and regular religious life for various communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
When the Providence Journal moved him to breaking news in 2009, he embraced his new beat, Peter Dujardin told the Globe.
“He liked to go out and find the stories,” he said. “If it was a shooting or something, he would focus on trying to get the answers.”
“I admired how devoted and loyal he was,” his daughter Joelle Dujardin told the Globe. “He was very loyal to his favorite brands, his alma maters, and his family, and his church. Once he loved something, he loved them forever, he was very loyal.”
“He has had an impact on all of us and what we do,” his son Jean-Paul Dujardin told the Globe.
“Before Google, my dad was always my Google,” he added. “I would call him up at work and say, ‘Hey dad, what’s the answer to this?’ ‘Where would I find this?’”
A father of six and grandfather of 12, Dujardin retired in 2013. He loved to travel, and although a back ailment had slowed him in recent years, he remained mentally sharp, his children agreed.
“He just had a zest for life,” his daughter, Julianne Grew, told the Globe. “He was making plans to go to Lourdes, France, and to Paris. He was also focused on genealogy from both sides of the family. My grandmother had recently passed, she was big into genealogy. He was gong to take it over, he was excited about that.”
Friends and former colleagues were shocked and saddened by the news of the accident.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of Richard Dujardin and offer our deepest sympathies and condolences to all those whose lives he touched,” David Ng, executive editor of the Providence Journal, said in a statement.
“Those of us at the Providence Journal who knew Dick Dujardin, our longtime religion writer, remember him as a low-key guy, always with a bit of a smile, smoking a pipe when that was still allowed, a man without ego in a business where that’s rare,” Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin wrote.
“This is a heartbreaking loss,” said Manya Brachear Pashman, former president of the Religion News Association, where Dujardin served as a president and as a board member. He earned the organization’s lifetime achievement award in 2015.
“Richard was a veteran of our great profession who never lost his zeal for what we do and its greater purpose,” Brachear Pashman told the Religion News Service. “He was a kind soul too, whom even the most curmudgeonly among us wanted to throw their arms around and hug at conferences. He was that much of an inspiration.”
David Gibson, journalist and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, recalled Dujardin’s dual vocations: his journalism and his faith. “Richard’s deep faith and extensive knowledge of Catholicism made him especially formidable in reporting on the Catholic Church and the Vatican — the good and the bad,” Gibson told the RNS.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Providence tweeted, “May Richard rest in the peace of God’s Kingdom. My prayers and blessings to his family and friends at this time of profound sorrow and loss.”
“We’re still seeking answers,” Dujardin’s son, Philip Dujardin, told WISN.com. “Our faith has been something that’s been holding us strong right now.”
The Kilbourn Avenue Bridge is controlled by the city’s Department of Public Works and its two halves are raised and lowered for boat traffic by someone working remotely who has two camera views of the span. The lights and bells were operational as the two sections were raised and crossing arms came down at each end of the bridge, according to investigators.
According to the medical examiner’s report, the drawbridge is controlled from a location on Water Street. Employees have two camera views of the bridge, and have to check both cameras before raising the bridge. Dujardin was wearing dark-colored clothing, according to the report, and the railing of the bridge is dark green.
Rose-Marie Dujardin told investigators that her husband was hard of hearing and wore glasses. The medical examiner’s report said he was looking at an iPad while walking. Witnesses told the Milwaukee Journal on Monday that police performed CPR on Dujardin and paramedics also used a defibrillator to try to revive him.
Milwaukee Interim Public Works Commissioner Jerrel Kruschke said the employee who operated the bridge is in his fourth year and has conducted hundreds of bridge openings. He said the employee has been put on leave and offered counseling. Milwaukee police said in a statement that there is no suspicion of a criminal act, and that the investigation continues.
The department said in a statement that about half of the city’s 20 bridges are operated remotely, calling it “a safe and standard industry practice.”
The Milwaukee Journal reported that, in 2021, the city recorded more than 27,700 openings at its movable bridges, an increase of 19 percent since 2017, according to Department of Public Works data. But Kilbourn Avenue Bridge has seen an 87 percent increase in openings since 2017, in part because of a boat line that moved farther up the Milwaukee River in 2021, according to Urban Milwaukee.
While they wait for answers, Dujardin’s children are focusing on their father’s faith.
“He was generally at peace,” Peter Dujardin said. “He didn’t want to die at all [but] he didn’t dwell on death. He knew where he was going. It kind of overall gave him a peace in life. We hang on to that. He had peace with what was going to happen to him after he died.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
This article has been updated to include comments and new information from Richard Dujardin’s family.