Ralph Gardner Jr: Reusable Community Activism | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Reusable Community Activism

Jun 13, 2020

Tom Plumb at Middlebury College in the 1970’s
Credit Tom Plumb

My wife and I have the same disagreement around this time every year. She wants to buy a case of bottled water for guests. I say our tap water is great and, besides, plastic bottles, even if they’re recyclable aren’t good for the environment.

As a mild form of protest, very mild I admit, I reuse the same bottle over and over again. In anticipation of her inevitable purchase I found an old one on the floor of the garage and washed it off. Unfortunately it’s missing its cap. So I’ve spilled it more than once.

I’m about to segue to a different subject, though hopefully not completely different since it includes building water systems in third world countries. The subject is Tom Plumb. Tom’s a community activist. Or maybe he’s a community organizer. I’m not sure what the term of art is. But he’s been improving people’s lives ever since we attended Middlebury College together back in the 1970’s.

We reconnected when both of us participated in a Zoom college reunion last weekend. I’d have been disappointed if Tom had turned out to be hedge fund guy and joined us on Zoom from his mansion in Greenwich or his private yacht.

Still, I was impressed, if not totally surprised, when he explained, while video chatting against a tropical background, that he’d moved to Honduras, commonly rated the world’s most dangerous country. He was married to a Honduran woman, had a nine-year-old son and a puppy and was building schools and water systems. If he felt in any danger he didn’t spend much time looking over his shoulder.

Community activism is making a comeback, especially with the double whammy of a pandemic and racial injustice. Actually, make that a triple whammy. There’s the pandemic, police brutality against people of color, and an administration that washes its hands of all responsibility for the nation’s woes while the President preens. Change, if it’s going to come, will rise from the grass roots.

But Tom Plumb has been practicing community activism since his teens. In college he cut quite a figure even in an era when long hair was the norm. His was red, fell halfway down his back, and then there was his beard. He recalls it as a Ho Chi Minh beard.

“I cut it when I ran for office,” he recalled. That was for the Vermont state legislature 1974. He was still in college, the town of Middlebury was Republican, and he lost to a ticket that included James Douglas the future governor.

But it wasn’t a total loss. “I sold my beard and moustache for fifty dollars an inch,” he recalled. “Back then it was a lot of money.”

The proceeds went to the summer camp for low-income kids he was running at the time.

It’s probably futile to ask people what makes them tick, including those who devote themselves to the welfare of others in a selfish age. But Tom, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland told me that his father was a Quaker. Tom was also raised Quaker. He described his mother as “a typical suburban housewife volunteer.”

At a time of life when other kids were refusing to clean up their rooms he was collecting trash in nearby Rock Creek Park. He was also involved in organizing the first Earth Day in 1970. His community activism helped him gain admission to Middlebury. “It was not my grades,” he said.

His work didn’t preclude having fun in college and he was crowned king of the Middlebury Winter Carnival in 1975, the year we graduated. I remember because I MC’d the event. Tom fashioned his crown from bottle caps collected at the Alibi, the town bar. “That’s where I got my staff when I ran for state legislature,” he said. “They were all bar people.” By the way, in that propitious era the drinking age was eighteen.

He left Vermont in 2006, fed up with the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork he had to navigate to get things done. “All I wanted to do was build schools,” he said.

Bureaucracy apparently isn’t a problem in Honduras. “If I raise enough money I build a school or water system,” he said. Thus far, he said he’s built 57 classrooms, fifteen water systems, and electrified five communities.

And crime isn’t top of mind. His town, Trujillo, is remote, 225 miles from the nation’s capital.

Tom expects to live the rest of his life in Honduras. “I have no desire nor could I afford to live in the U.S.,” he told me. “What money I had I gave away.”

What does any of this have to do with my wife’s and my disagreement over water bottles? Not much except that Tom’s life seems a metaphor: not that old saw about the bottle being half full or half empty. But about the way life’s a container that’s waiting to be filled and refilled depending on your energy, values, endurance and ambition.

I was glad to reconnect with Tom and to see that he keeps replenishing his bottle, jar, flask, gourd, whatever. It seems as full and as fresh as when we first met in college a long, long time ago.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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