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John H. Plunkett, 90, a veteran newspaperman and former assistant managing editor of The Baltimore Sun, has died

John H. Plunkett, 90, a veteran newspaperman and former assistant managing editor of The Baltimore Sun, has died
John Plunkett (Jed Kirshbaum / Baltimore Sun)

John H. Plunkett, a former chief of The Baltimore Sun's copy desk who went on to become an assistant managing editor during a career at the newspaper that spanned more than four decades, died Sunday of complications from dementia at Stella Maris Hospice.

The Timonium resident was 90.

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"He was a mentor to everyone on the copy desk, and we loved him," said Hal Piper, a former Sun copy editor and foreign correspondent. "He was a decent man, witty, competent and a good teacher. He was never harsh or demeaning, even when you didn't get something right."

"John hired me from the Navy in 1966 to work on the copy desk," said Robert Grover, who was named copy desk chief in 1970, a position he held until 1985, when he was named copy desk chief at U.S. News & World Report.

"As an editor, he was extremely meticulous. As a boss, he was eminently fair and kind, and as a friend, a joy," Mr. Grover said.

"I found myself years after leaving The Sun calling John in the middle of the night to ask a question about grammar or news judgment," Mr. Grover said. "He was a font of information and was always willing to share with anyone who had the wisdom to ask."

Frank P.L. Somerville, a retired reporter and editor, called Mr. Plunkett "indispensable" to the newspaper.

"His much-admired proficiency and steady professionalism as a newspaper veteran — whether as chief on the copy desk or as assistant managing editor — were matched always by his unfailing fairness and courteousness that still stayed in tune with his sly wit and contagious sense of fun," Mr. Somerville wrote in an email.

The son of Paul E. Plunkett, a pharmacist, and Agnes Sullivan Plunkett, a homemaker, John Homer Plunkett was born in Baltimore and lived above his father's Edmondson Avenue drugstore. After his father's death in 1941, the family moved to a home on 34th Street.

A 1943 graduate of Loyola High School, Mr. Plunkett was attending Loyola College when he was drafted into the Army the next year, joining a select group of 19-year-olds who were chosen to study Japanese at the University of Pennsylvania and whose mission was to infiltrate the Japanese army, family members said.

The war ended before the course was completed, but Mr. Plunkett, who served with the Counterintelligence Corps, was sent to Japan, where he worked with a Japanese translator.

"I was not the best infantryman," Mr. Plunkett once recalled in an interview. "I broke bones in both feet marching in basic training in Georgia. I made sergeant two months before I got out."

He was discharged in 1946 and earned a bachelor's degree from Loyola College in 1948, where he had been managing editor of the Greyhound, the college newspaper, and a member of Alpha Sigma Nu, the national Jesuit honor society.

Mr. Plunkett began his newspaper career in 1948 when he walked into The Sun's old Sun Square building at Baltimore and Charles streets and was hired as a copy reader, a classification the Newspaper Guild later changed to copy editor.

Of his lifelong love affair with newspapering, Mr. Plunkett said in a 2005 interview with The Sun that "the newspaper was what authenticated whatever was going on in the world, especially in the community."

In 1957, he succeeded J. Pierce Fenhagen as copy deck chief, a position he held until 1966, when he was named an assistant managing editor by managing editor Paul A. Banker.

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Jerry M. Bayne, a retired Sun copy editor, was hired by Mr. Plunkett in 1965 and recalled his reassuring demeanor.

"He continually astounded me with his calm facility with words, especially in writing headlines on deadline," Mr. Bayne wrote in an email. "John was consistently gentle in showing me how my headlines could have been better. He never made a show of his broad knowledge, but his corrections to writers' historical recountings were eye-opening."

He added: "I admired his quiet competence and generosity of character."

After Mr. Banker retired in 1982, Mr. Plunkett continued working as an assistant managing editor for Mr. Banker's successor, James I. Houck, and was responsible for overseeing the photo department, business, sports, copy desk and news technology.

"I rarely saw him lose his temper, no matter what was going on," Mr. Somerville said. "John was always kind and fair — I think as much as anyone I've known."

Mr. Plunkett sometimes walked from his Cedarcroft home to work when snowstorms shut down the city and bus service was suspended.

After Mr. Plunkett retired in 1991, he spent the next 22 years as the volunteer main writer and news editor of the Baltimore Sun Alumni Gazette. His last issue was in 2013.

Ernest F. Imhoff, a longtime editor for The Evening Sun and The Sun, said Mr. Plunkett once told him, "I'm proud that in my lifetime I was paid for only two things — two years in the Army and my 43 years at The Sun."

Mr. Plunkett, who was a world traveler, was 40 when he learned to swim and ride a bike, and he often rode from Cedarcroft Road to work with Mr. Grover, Mr. Bayne and Gilbert L. Watson III, a longtime Sun editor.

Mr. Plunkett was a longtime communicant of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Roman Catholic Church, where he was also a volunteer.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday at his church, 20 E. Ridgely Road, Timonium.

Mr. Plunkett is survived by his wife of 62 years, Mary Agnes Golden; three sons, Philip E. Plunkett and Lawrence G. Plunkett, both of Cockeysville, and Daniel J. Plunkett of Phoenix, Baltimore County; three daughters, Mary G. "Trudy" Dashiell of Parkville, Margaret S. "Peggy" Hundley of Cockeysville and Elizabeth A. "Betsy" Plunkett of Timonium; a sister, Janet Zinzeleta of Waxhaw, N.C.; 15 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article included incorrect names for some survivors. It has been corrected here.

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