When Joe Plut was considering teaching jobs, the University of Hawaii was interested.
“You should have taken that one,” I said to him the other day, when I met him as part of NewsCut’s The People You Should Meet series.
“But then I wouldn’t have met you,” he replied, revealing a seriousness of a life’s philosophy with a rhetorical hug.
Had the Crosby-born retired English professor left Minnesota for good, he wouldn’t have become — from all accounts — one of the most beloved people in the Lakes Region.
Plut, a long-time professor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd (formerly Brainerd Community College) is such a legend in Minnesota, that the Prairie Bay Grill will dedicate the Joe Plut Reading Room in his honor tonight. The executive chef, Matt Annand, is a former student, of course.
“Joe’s students love him still,” Nancy Waller, of Breezy Point, told me in nominating Plut for the series. “No matter where my husband and I go with him, he runs into a former student, they hug, and he remembers who they are. He often helps those that need the help, and always comforts them.”
It might never have been. Plut left Crosby in 1958 for the bright lights of New York, with the suggestion from his parents that he give it a few weeks and see if he could find work. He and a friend hit town with $90 in his pocket, and no intention of teaching for a living.
“I was astonished I did it,” he says. “We bought a paper and found a place to stay.” They lied to get it, telling the landlord they were editors at Doubleday. “We didn’t want them to think we just came into town without any money.”
But he ended up working on his master’s degree at Columbia (he’s a graduate of St. John’s) and began exploring a world they didn’t have in Crosby. “It changed my life,” he said. “I saw Bob Dylan in ’62 at Carnegie Hall, and Mahalia Jackson, and Joan Baez was very young and she was in Philharmonic Hall,” he said, displaying an astonishing talent for not only remembering years, but exact days and dates. He’s also able to remember his students’ names and the year they graduated.
After receiving his master’s, he migrated to Metro Goldwyn Mayer in Manhattan as a legal researcher, researching scripts on the Dr. Kildare TV series. But it was the assassination of President Kennedy that brought him home. At a sad time, he decided there was more to life than New York. “It wasn’t challenging at all. I left just in time to not find a job in teaching,” he says, filling the Joe Plut Reading Room with a guffaw.
He found a home at Brainerd Community College, where he taught English and creative communication.
“I was conventional in the first years. I called all of my students ‘Mr.’ and ‘Miss,’ because that’s what they did at Columbia,” he says. “I was amazed how gifted my students were.”
Over the fireplace in the soon-to-be dedicated Joe Plut Reading Room, a stern portrait of someone nobody seems to know has recently sported a new button. “Real men hug,” it says.
It’s fitting; Joe Plut is the “Mad Hugger” of Brainerd.
Sometime in the late ’60s, he started hugging. “Some parents didn’t want me because I was so wild. I was liberal. I’m more conservative now.” He started hugging, he says, even before he heard a talk in the early ’70s in Superior by Leo Buscaglia, another college professor who was so moved by a student’s suicide at the University of Southern California, that he started speaking out for more “connectedness.”
“I gave a talk — on December 7th — in all of my classes about what Buscaglia said and I told them I would hug them after class,” he said.
“I’ve only been almost punched a couple of times,” he said.
Around the time Robert T. Smith, the Minneapolis Tribune columnist, gave him his nickname, Plut began to realize he wasn’t just a college professor; he was a beloved college professor.
“I suppose when my classes kept filling and that they allowed me to hug them, because, oh, I was wild in those days,” he says. “Some who were really faint of heart didn’t take it. But others took it because they wanted to get more open — creative communication. I would hug after every class. A few over the years just shook hands.”
“I provided the atmosphere — a positive, loving atmosphere. I even stopped grading in red pen (he used purple). I would learn names on the first or second day. If a student would hug particularly tightly on a given day, I’d know something was wrong, so I’d write a note to that student. Maybe something was wrong — a grandparent or something,” Plut says.
His spreading fame took him on the road. He gave over 300 “love lectures,” as he calls them. “I proved to myself I could do something else, then,” he says.
But Plut didn’t know that much about family dynamics with children. So a former student, Jim Kirzeder, invited him to live with his family for a month to watch one in action (“It was March 29, 1980,” he remembers). One month became three months and three months became 31 years. “They’re family,” says Plut, who recites a coming winter schedule of visiting the families of the now-grown five children.
Plut’s best friend, however, was Minnesota author Jon Hassler, another professor at Central Lakes College, whose novels examined the intricacies of life in small-town Minnesota. Plut wrote the 2010 book, “Conversations with Jon Hassler.”
Prairie Bay executive chef Matt Annand came up with the idea of the Joe Plut Reading Room. “There’s a Jon Hassler library at the college, so there should be a Joe Plut Reading Room here,” he said, especially since Plut is his best customer; he eats at the restaurant a few times a week.
When it’s dedicated tonight, Plut will fulfill an agreement with Hassler. They agreed years ago to write each other’s eulogy. Plut got to read Hassler’s first, when the author died in 2008.
“I had asked Jon one time, ‘If I die first, what might you say?’ He said, ‘I’ve already written it.'”
If it says Joe Plut is the type of person you’d like to hug, he got it right.
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