Johnnie Couple Share Longstanding Passion for Volunteerism, Philanthropy … and Sports!
February 15, 2023 | By Eve Tolpa
Rick Plaut (A77) and Carol Plaut (A79) met as St. John’s undergrads and remain dedicated alumni. Their longstanding involvement with the college is multifaceted, with the Annapolis intramural program remaining especially dear to their hearts. Their daughter, Emma (A07), is also a Johnnie.
Tell me about your involvement with St. John’s since graduation.
Rick: I’m pretty instrumental in organizing reunions. We think it’s important, but it’s self-interest, too. My roommates from college are still my best friends, and we’ve always come back every five years for our reunions. Our kids were familiar with St. John’s, so when Emma was looking at colleges, we very consciously took her to other schools instead of trying to—what’s the right word?—indoctrinate her. But she decided St. John’s was the only place for her.
Carol: We were thrilled because she was athletic growing up, and when she went to St. John’s she also played a lot of sports there.
Rick: We both played a lot of sports at St. John’s.
You don’t hear that every day!
Rick: Carol captained the Maenads, after her freshman year as a Nymph, and I captained the Greenwaves, after my freshman year with the Hustlers. We both won blazers for our participation, and Carol won another blazer as the best athlete—or maybe it was a sportsmanship award?—of her class upon her graduation in 1979. And she’s still an awesome athlete.
Carol: Annapolis has a wonderful intramural program that welcomes people of all athletic abilities. It’s a place where you can play basketball when you’re five-foot-two. You can learn how to play soccer—things that balance the intense intellectual activity going on. It’s got a great spirit about it.
Rick: There was no such thing as sitting on the bench. You went in and played, no matter how good or bad you or your team was. I think it sets young people up to see that kind of recreation as something that’s fun, enjoyable.
Carol: It echoes the Program, because at St. John’s when you sit around seminar, everybody’s opinion is heard and respected. Everybody is approaching the readings on equal ground, and I feel like the sports program was the same way.
Rick: It was just part and parcel of our experience there. We were glad to participate, and we continue to support it.
You recently made a significant pledge to the Johnnie Scholarship fund. What inspired that gift?
Rick: St. John’s and this method of education are very important to us and close to our hearts.
Carol: St. John’s creates lifelong learners and people who are good at listening and speaking. If we had more people who experienced the Program, we would have better citizens and the world would be a better place. I would not have been able to go to St. John’s except that I was lucky enough to get a scholarship through my father’s work. The United Steelworkers gave me a fairly substantial scholarship, and it was very meaningful to me.
Rick: One of the reasons I was attracted to St. John’s was you get to read books. I was always a big reader and a book person, and I always had to make money to afford college. So I had factory jobs, but I also had bookstore jobs. I could afford to pay for college by working summer jobs, but now you just can't do that. We’re very happy that St. John’s has been able to dial back tuition costs. That really gave me a lot of hope and was also a call for us. They said, “We’re going to need the alumni to step up.”
Carol: It’s almost like a responsibility. I would hate to see somebody not be able to attend.
What career paths have you each taken since St. John’s?
Carol: I have always been interested in education, and after St. John’s I became a Montessori teacher. Then when I needed to make more money, I got my master’s degree and became a literacy specialist. So I get to spend my day reading books with kids and helping them write papers, which is just a fabulous life.
Rick: After I graduated, I turned my bookstore jobs into a full-time gig and got to learn the book business and eventually worked my way back to book manufacturing and ended up with a relatively big job in a paper corporation. Then in 2008, I jumped off that wagon and became an entrepreneur. Since then, I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship and mentoring entrepreneurs, and testing the waters a few times building my own businesses. It’s been sort of a radical departure except for this linkage: when I worked for this big corporation, I was—it’s a word that’s been coined recently—an “intrapreneur,” meaning I was building businesses within the corporation, using the resources of the corporation.
Can you give an example of that?
Rick: I was in sales in New York City, selling paper to publishers, and my bosses were saying, “Why aren’t you selling more paper?” And, because I’m willing to be honest, I said, “Because we don’t make the right type of paper.” They said, “What is the right type of paper?” So I showed them how to make it, and I basically started a new business making this other sort of paper. I replicated that over time and opened up new markets geographically—Europe and South America and Asia.
To me, that story hinges on you being frank with your boss. Not everybody would feel comfortable speaking up like that.
Rick: My ability to hear what was needed in the market, to analyze and solve that problem—a lot of that was because of the skills that I learned at St. John’s: the listening and synthesizing that you learn to do in this almost informal way by discussing books and ideas. It allows people the freedom to say what they think—to share your opinions, especially if you back them up. Maybe that allows people like me to confront a boss and say, “We’re doing something wrong here.”
Carol: St. John’s gives you these skills to be a lifelong learner, so if there’s something you become interested in later on, you can do it.
Rick: And it’s not just the tools, it’s the competence. If you can read Hegel and understand what Hegel means, you can probably read anything. Not to say we know how to read Hegel. But we’ve attempted!
Carol: The other night I had a dream about Euclid. I also had a dream where I was trying to name all the characters in the Iliad. And Rick was actually able to help me in the morning to remember some of the ones I’d forgotten.
Rick: Without asking Siri.