This column originally ran in The Bulletin Nov. 5, 2007. Rene Dugas died Dec. 27 at the age of 100.
Once upon a time, a baby was born in Taftville. It was 1909, and, for the next 96 years, that baby, Rene Dugas, has lived one of the most interesting lives of anyone I know.
He graduated from Sacred Heart Grammar School in Taftville, and while he attended only one year at Norwich Free Academy, he went back 10 years later and completed his high school education.
We all know Rene Dugas as the historian of the village of Taftville and author of two wonderful books that assure his legacy in this community. Rene wrote in his first book about “The French Canadians in New England,” of which he and his family are part. Then, in a second hard-cover book, he wrote about “Taftville, Connecticut and the Industrial Revolution.”
Several weeks ago, Rene Dugas received another prestigious award, one of many in his long life of public service.
The American-French Genealogical Society of Woonsocket, R.I., which is one of the finest genealogical organizations in the country, honored Taftville’s Rene Dugas. He was inducted into the American-French Genealogical Society French-Canadian Hall of Fame. It was an event I was invited to but, because of my health and just plain old age, could not attend.
Rene Dugas has done so much with his life and today, at 96, continues to have more energy than many people much younger — myself, for example. This morning, I thought I might tell you some of the things you don’t know about Rene Dugas.
For example, Rene is an accomplished piano player. When he graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1936, he was a soloist and played “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6” for piano by Franz Liszt. No easy assignment. He performed in so many concerts and recitals, and he later was the organist at Taftville’s Sacred Church, and I’ll bet you didn’t know that.
Back in the 1930s, during the Depression, Rene organized the Sacred Heart Glee Club.
When the war came, he attended Hamilton Propellor School of Engineering and he worked in the defense industry throughout those war years.
We all know Rene Dugas and his father before him as very accomplished photographers. Rene is so proud of his photo collection, which has some 3,000 pictures that go back more than 100 years.
Rene got his formal education in photography from the Winona School of Professional Photography. While he is a great photographer, he is also a painter and has produced a number of oil paintings.
In 1985, when most his age would be basking in retirement, Rene went back to school and got an associate’s degree in science at Three Rivers Community College.
It is fair to say that Rene and his father before him are considered Taftville’s local historians. When his dad became incapacitated, Rene took over the Dugas Studio and became an active and award-winning photographer.
We know he was a pianist, painter, photographer, author and publisher, and I also knew him as a politician. When Dwight Eisenhower was running for president and Dick Nixon was his vice president, Rene Dugas was successful in being elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives. He was the highest vote-getter on the ticket.
He was also a revolutionary of sorts and led a group who wanted to form a new town. They would have called it Wequonnoc and proposed that Taftville and Occum secede from Norwich and become one town unto themselves. That move obviously failed.
Back to Hartford
In 1957, Rene was re-elected as state representative. After his service in Hartford, he became a justice of the peace. Now, he not only photographed weddings, he also performed many marriages.
This man from Taftville has boundless energy and through the years has been a vital part of many civic organizations.
Old-timers will remember the Better Government Association and the Taftville/Occum Lions Club. More recently, he was the chairman of his class reunion on two occasions. A life member of the Knights of Columbus, he was a frequent guest on WICH and has been the subject of many articles in the Norwich Bulletin.
Years ago, when WICH, during the Lenten Season, would recite the rosary, there were several from Taftville — all legends — who were always there with Bishop Flanagan.
I recall Rene is a distant relative of mine. My mother’s sister married Lefty Dugas, and Lefty and Rene are cousins. So, I guess Rene is part of my family, as well as the entire family of Taftville.
There is a character about Rene Dugas that you have to love and respect. He has done so much with his gifts and talents, and he is what every town should have at least one of — a man who not only knows the history of the village and respects the genealogy of his ancestors, but promotes that knowledge and understanding in a way that very few have the ability to do.
At 96, he has more energy than I do, and he’s 20 years my senior. But, I guess the one thing you can say about Rene Dugas, beyond his longevity and incredibly good health, is that he is a very good person.
He has touched so many lives and done so much for his church, his community and his fellow man that I thought this Sunday we might congratulate Rene for the high honor he has received from a society he so respects and loves.
I can think of no honor that he would more cherish than the French-Canadian Hall of Fame. On behalf of all the people of Taftville and Norwich, I would like to thank Rene Dugas for all he has done and for all I know he will continue to do in the future.
In spite of his 96 years on this earth, he still seems to have many miles left on his speedometer, and his boundless energy will continue to serve for years to come.