"Little things" haunt widower

When Thomas Dugas thinks about his wife, Lu-Ann, he recalls how she hung her pantyhose on the shower rod, how she left her slippers in the hallway, or how she drank tea every morning.

“It’s the little things that evoke the most emotions,” he said.

Lu-Ann Dugas, 54, died Nov. 2, 2007, just 15 days shy of their 34th wedding anniversary.

She and two other people were killed when a northbound tanker truck carrying 7,500 gallons of heating fuel went out of control at 10:20 a.m. and crossed the highway near the intersection of Interstates 95 and 395 in East Lyme, ramming a southbound tractor-trailer and causing a pileup.

Dugas remembers the day of the crash starting like any other day.

An electrician at Electric Boat, he told his wife, “I love you,” gave her a kiss and left for work from his East Lyme home as he always did.

Lu-Ann Dugas, a head teller at the Charter Oak Federal Credit Union in Niantic, normally would have gone directly to work, but on that day she had an appointment with the eye doctor first.

She never made it to work, and Thomas Dugas wouldn’t learn until hours later that his wife had died in the crash.

“I kept calling her and she didn’t answer her cellphone,” Dugas said. “I called the bank and they didn’t know where she was. I saw on the news footage that a Grand Marquis was involved in the crash, but I thought to myself, ‘There’s got to be 100,000 Grand Marquises. It can’t be hers.'”

But it was.

Like many in the region that day, Thomas Dugas took hours to get home because the highway had been shut down. When he finally arrived, there were two state troopers waiting for him, confirming his worst fears.

“It was horrible,” he said. “It was the worst thing that happened to me and my son, Charles. I had to call my son, who was at Eastern (Conecticut State University) at the time, and tell him that we had lost Mom. It was a very dismal day.”

Thomas met Lu-Ann Mathieu, who was from Waterford, at the Capitol Theater in New London, where she was a candy girl and he was an usher. Their first date was at his senior prom at St. Bernard High School. They married after three years of dating.

Their marriage had its high and lows, Dugas said, but their love for each other kept them going.

“She used to say ‘marital blisters’ instead of ‘marital bliss,'” Dugas said with a smile. “She was a great woman. She was funny, smart. She had a dry sense of humor. She was a Swamp Yankee.”

After the crash, Dugas said, he was left in a haze. Not only did he lose his lifelong companion, but he also had to “learn how to do for myself.”

He had never done laundry — he admits that he messed up a few loads of whites. And there wasn’t a “dish fairy” that cleaned up after him.

At first, he said, he wanted to run away, just leave, but he followed the advice of his brother, Robert, who told him not to make any big decisions for at least a year.

He still lives in the home he shared with Lu-Ann. He retired from Electric Boat last August.

“I thought about escaping, but where would I go? You can’t escape the pain,” he said. “For years, I would reach over in bed and she wouldn’t be there.”

Dugas credited his family, friends and the community for helping him pull through. But he occasionally has to drive through the stretch of highway where his wife was killed, which brings back memories of her death as if it “just happened.”

Lu-Ann was an active member in her community. She was a volunteer at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, she mentored children at several Groton schools and was deeply involved with Boy Scout Troop 17 in Groton, where Dugas is Scoutmaster.

He and some friends raised money to build the Dugas Handicraft Pavilion four years ago in her honor at the June Norcross Webster Scout Reservation in Ashford. He also plans to build a boathouse in the fall in her name at the Ashford camp.

Her colleagues at Charter Oak created the Lu-Ann Dugas Memorial Scholarship, which has been awarded to a student annually since 2008.

“These things will never be able to replace her,” he said. “But we are celebrating her life, not her death. … To appreciate life you can’t look in the rearview mirror. You have to move forward, even when it’s hard.”

Thomas Dugas
Thomas Dugas

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