Late prosecuting attorney deserved 'legendary' status

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Two years ago, a former Oakland County Prosecutor became a “Legend of the Law” in Birmingham, where he built a reputation as one of the most respected and honorable men in the state’s legal profession.

Tom Plunkett, who died in October 2017 at age 78 after an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer, was posthumously honored in November 2019 at a special reception hosted by the Oakland County Bar Foundation at the Townsend Hotel.

The ceremony, which drew scores of prominent members of the bench and bar from the Detroit area, featured a televised interview of Plunkett that was broadcast just months before his death. The interview was conducted by attorney Henry Gornbein, a noted family law attorney who for more than two decades has hosted an award-winning local cable television show titled “Practical Law.”

A past president of the Oakland County Bar Association, Plunkett grew up in northern Kentucky, the oldest of three children. He attended Thomas More College, a small liberal arts school near Cincinnati, where he met his wife, Ann, who would pursue a career in education after earning her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

Following his college graduation, Plunkett was awarded a coveted scholarship to attend University of Detroit School of Law in 1960. He became an editor of the Law Journal there, earning a prized clerkship with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas M. Kavanagh after graduation.

Upon joining the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office two years later, Plunkett continued his rapid rise, becoming Chief Assistant Prosecutor at the tender age of 26. In 1968, Plunkett was the choice of voters for the top post, at the time reportedly becoming the youngest elected prosecuting attorney in a major metropolitan area in the U.S.

Some two decades later, Plunkett was invited to join the Birmingham firm of Williams Schaefer Ruby & Williams. It proved to be a game-changer for the firm, according to Rick Williams, managing partner of what is now Williams Williams Rattner & Plunkett.

“For the next 30 years, we had the good fortune of working shoulder to shoulder with a man whose talents as an attorney were only exceeded by the depth of his character,” Williams said in 2019.

I first met Tom some 15 years ago, when he had the misfortune of being paired with me in a Friday evening golf group. It was my maiden voyage with the group, which includes various members of the Detroit area legal community.

One of those who regularly plays in the golf group is U.S. District Judge David Lawson, who quickly gave me a lesson on all that I needed to know about Tom Plunkett.

“Look up the word ‘integrity’ in the dictionary and you will see Tom Plunkett’s picture next to the definition,” Judge Lawson told me years ago.

The lesson was one I learned quickly after interviewing Tom for a feature story, in which he repeatedly poked fun at himself for some perceived shortcomings – such as being too focused at times during his career. In the magical year of 1968, for instance.

“I remember when I was running for Oakland County prosecutor in 1968 and I came home one October evening and asked my wife (Ann) what was the noise all about out on the streets,” Plunkett recalled during the interview. “She politely informed me that the Tigers had just won the World Series. That was an early indication that I needed to be in closer touch with what was happening in the world around me.”

Considered in some quarters as the “Dean” of the State Bar of Michigan for his 18 years of service on the board, Plunkett also had a distinguished history of service with the OCBA, serving as president in 1989-90 and as a board member from 1981-90. In 2006, Plunkett was the recipient of the Roberts P. Hudson Award from the State Bar, the highest honor conferred by the organization. The award “signifies unusual and extraordinary help and assistance to the Bar and the legal profession, which has been given generously, ungrudgingly, and in a spirit of self-sacrifice,” according to a statement from the State Bar.

Along with his career success, Plunkett had an impressive record of volunteerism, serving on the board of Cranbrook, the Ferndale Board of Education, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Oakland County, and the Oakland County Chamber of Commerce.

His reputation as public servant was held in particularly high regard by former Michigan Governor James Blanchard, who when in office asked Plunkett to investigate a massive cost overrun with a new computer system for the Michigan Employment Security Commission (MESC). An estimated $18 million project somehow ballooned to $81 million, prompting then Governor Blanchard to ask Plunkett to find out why.

“Governor Blanchard said he wouldn’t accept an explanation that those in charge were dyslexic,” Plunkett quipped years later when recalling the assignment.

Tom Ryan, a past president of the State Bar, was among Plunkett’s closest friends and greatest admirers.

“Tom was always a fighter in the most appropriate sense of the word in that he focused on the positive aspects of his position and life,” Ryan noted. “He did not denigrate those who did not agree with him. Tom was the quintessential Irishman, known to have a liquid refreshment from time to time, with a classic deadpan humor that could lighten up any room or social situation.”

In addition, Ryan said that Plunkett’s influence extended far beyond the professional sphere.

“Tom was a man of great faith, who loved his family, country and profession, became a successful attorney but more importantly a successful person, by his sheer intellect, his hard work, and unblemished character,” said Ryan. “I sorely miss him.”

As do I, and all others who subscribe to the belief that strength of character is a defining measure of life success.




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