BALTIMORE, Jan. 16 (JTA) — To write, “He died suddenly last Wednesday morning at the Baltimore City home of a friend,” seems, well, it seems impossible. Morton “Sonny” Plant was to the Baltimore Jewish community, and for that matter the world Jewish community, the tough-but-loving and understanding father figure. He was the ultimate “go-to”guy.
Sonny would rather that someone else get the credit, get the accolades, get the attention. He’s probably going to be angry that this story is written about him today, on the cover of the Baltimore Jewish Times no less.
At age 70, he had served three years as chairman of the board of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and he had served as chairman of the United Jewish Communities’ executive committee. He was managing emergency allocations to help Israel recover from its summer war against Hezbollah. His schedule the week of his death was busier than anyone half his age.
But on the morning of Jan. 12, at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, the people on his schedule attended, instead, his funeral. They heard eulogies instead of that protective, directive and reassuring voice.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Tamara (Tammie), daughters Ellen Plant and Laurie Stagnitta, son-in-law James, six grandchildren, his brother Arnold and sister-in-law Elaine Plant as well.
Phone calls started going out in urgency on Wednesday morning after news of his passing, cause of death not known. He was not sick nor was he suffering from a long illness.
The only ones who are sick now are the people who can’t get over his death. Talking to friends and associates of his Jan. 10 passing was like the interviews we’ve seen after a tornado hits a mobile home park. Nobody saw this coming. And mentally, there’s a great deal of trying to make sense of this.
“The death of Morton Plant is an incalculable loss, not only for me personally, but for our entire Baltimore Jewish community — indeed, for all our worldwide Jewish family,”said Marc Terrill, president of the Associated. “Thanks to his many years of leadership and wise counsel, he integrated the highest Jewish values with a practical, results-oriented approach that made a difference in millions of lives in Baltimore, in Israel, and around the world. His memory, and the example he set, will be a blessing and an inspiration to me and to all the Jewish people for many years to come.”
Genine Macks Fidler, the Associated’s board chairwoman, saw Sonny Plant as this community’s patriarch. On Wednesday, she was stunned by the tragic news.
“It’s so tragic,”she said. “When someone is ill, you have time to tell them you love them. Nobody’s ever completely prepared. But this is really abrupt and painful. I loved him. I would not be in the position I am in today if I were not for him. He was a mentor of mine, he encouraged me and supported me. He was a model for me to emulate.”
“I often referred to Sonny as ‘my Baltimore father,'”said Rachel Garbow Monroe, chief operating officer of the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and former vice president of marketing for the Associated. “And knowing how much I adore and respect my father, I don’t know how to pay a stronger compliment. I rarely made a major professional career decision without his counsel. I was chairman of his fan club.”
Almost everyone interviewed for this article had either just seen Sonny, spoken to him or were set to meet with him. Monroe was supposed to have drinks with him last night “to kibbitz and talk.” Indeed, Plant was there at the bris for each of her two sons. He was that close to the people he worked with.
“If you look at the Jewish community in the past 25 years in Baltimore, he is one of the most powerful leaders to place Baltimore’s Jewish community in a positive position. He has left his long-term fingerprint on this world.,” Monroe said. “He was one of the elite leaders.”
Darrell Friedman, who saw Plant the Sunday before his death, was president of the Associated when Plant first started his involvement with the federation. That came in 1993 when Plant chaired the Maccabi Games here in Baltimore, considered one of the most successful, best-organized games in the event’s history. From that point on, Friedman wasn’t going to let Plant go without a communal role.
“It’s a major loss,”said Friedman, “not only in terms of what he did but what he stood for. Everyone who knew him loved him. He wasn’t afraid to take risks, and he had this uncanny knack to have the vision to look ahead. He was the consummate lay leader and friend with a Jewish heart. There will never be another Sonny Plant.”
In June 2002, Plant received the Associated’s highest service award, the Elkin R. Myer Award. It was presented to him by his long-time friend and stainless steel scrap metals business partner, Joel Tauber, himself a Jewish leader from Detroit.
“We go back 55 years,” Tauber said. “This is a shock. When I think of Sonny, I think of a man who was rough and gruff on the outside with a heart of gold and sweet as sugar on the inside. Truth is, he always tried to pretend he was rough and tough. But he really wasn’t. He just had this great heart. And he wasn’t a process guy. He just wanted to get things done.”
Plant told the Jewish Times once that when he got active in the Associated, there were two priorities he wanted to get done as quickly as possible. He felt that:
• Not enough community members were involved in the Associated, and not enough were made to feel good about their involvement. He said the Associated at the time was “an exclusive club,” and he wanted that changed. The results, under his watch, was an increase of about 3,000 new donors.
• Strategic planning. He felt the Associated could run itself better, and therefore, help more people. He brought in more of a corporate thinking to the organization, emphasizing words such as marketing” and “information technology.”
The “gruff” side covered a warm, anxious to get to work side. He would travel around the world, see the poverty Jews lived in the former Soviet Union. His words for it were “the outskirts of shlabutkyville.” He worked hard to bring food, clothing, medicine and aid to these Jews.
Also, people cannot forget that Plant was leader of the Baltimore Jewish community as it worked through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks era. And yes, it had a serious impact on him.
Morton B. “Sonny” Plant (1936-2007)
• Past chairman of the Associated Board
• Co-chairman Associated’s Capital Campaign
• Vice chairman for Community Planning and Allocations as well as Campaign Chair for the Associated
• Chairman of North American Maccabi Youth Games
• Immediate past chairman of the UJC Executive Committee
• Chairman of UJC Budget and Finance Committee
• Chairman of Israel Emergency Campaign Work Group, which is responsible for allocating $354 million collected by federations to help post-2006 war recovery
• Lead director of Mercantile Bankshares Corporation
• On boards of University of Maryland Medical System, Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Company, Woodholme Country Club and Caves Valley Country Club
• CEO and chairman of Keywell LLC, the largest domestic processor of stainless stell and high temperature alloy scrap in the U.S.
• President of the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel
• 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award for accomplishments in work in the scrap metal industry
• Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance and Commerce
“We don’t know what the future will be,” he said, “but we can try to prepare.”
On the Associated, he said, “We are blessed to be living here. The Associated is the central address of this Jewish community, especially when push comes to shove. Difficult decisions have to come from this building. We have great professional leadership here. Look, I can fire Darrell if he did a lousy job. But he can’t fire me if I did a lousy job. The lay person is the boss here. But we have such as trust, such a close working relationship between the lay leadership and the professional staff. It is unheard of in the federation world.”
Howard Rieger, the UJC’s president and CEO, called learning of Plant’s death “surreal.” He had just spoken to him on the telephone the previous evening. Plant was the outgoing chairman of the UJC Executive Committee, and the past UJC chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee.
Rieger was talking to Plant about a location where UJC could honor him for his work with it.
“He was a no-nonsense person, to the point with no games in the background,” Rieger said. “He didn’t have a great deal of patience for the static of the ongoing process. He could bring people together and move them to get important changes. He was a real mentsch. He didn’t look for a lot of visibility.”
“He listened to everybody,”said Plant’s nephew, Larry. “He cared about people. There was no problem too small. He worked to fix things, and he worked to help people fix things.
“It’s not real,” he continued. “It doesn’t seem real. It’s amazing. He was making plans. He had a busier schedule today that I did. He truly loved to be around people whether it was for business or social reasons.”
His close friend Herb Fried called him a “terrific guy, a man’s man, and a good thinker. He was fun to be with, and I miss him already. It’s a sad day for all of us.”
Chizuk Amuno Rabbi Emeritus Joel Zaiman described Plant as “outgoing in public and sharp as a whip. He was really a leader. He saw the whole picture. He knew how to encourage people. He enjoyed the various roles he played in the Jewish community. He felt very deeply about his family. He didn’t tolerate fools very well. He had a quick fuse. He was fun to be with. He was very good company.”
Five years ago, Friedman described Sonny Plant as “an iron man with a soft heart.” At the funeral, Friedman still couldn’t believe he was speaking in the past tense about his friend.
“He was there for me,” Friedman said, tears in his voice. “He made sure that professionals in the Associated system were held in proper esteem and respect. He did it his way, with style and with respect. If you tried to put the spotlight on Sonny, he would shy away from it. He could have cared less about the attention. He just wanted to get the work of the Jewish people done.”
When he left his chairmanship at the Associated, Plant told the Jewish Times, “I think I will miss it. But three years is plenty. It’s time.”
More about Morton B. “Sonny” Plant can be found at www.jewishtimes.com.