A former Wells College president and Cornell University provost has passed away.
The Auburn Citizen reports Robert Plane died last Monday at his Albuquerque, New Mexico home at the age of 90.
Plane served as Wells College president from 1991 to 1995, and was president of Clarkson University prior to that.
In a statement, current Wells president Jonathan Gibralter says Plane will be remembered at the college for his guidance and wisdom.
“On behalf of the entire Wells College community, I share my deepest condolences with the Plane family upon the passing of former president Robert Plane,” said President Jonathan Gibralter. “Bob is fondly remembered by many here at the College, which benefitted greatly from his wisdom and guidance during his leadership,” he added.
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Below is an obituary that was shared by President Plane’s family. You may also read Clarkson University’s announcement at this link.
Robert Allen Plane, Ph.D.
Robert Allen Plane, professor of chemistry, author of a widely adopted textbook in the field, Cornell University provost, president of both Clarkson University and Wells College, as well as a pioneering New York State vintner, died Aug. 6, 2018, at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the age of 90.
Plane was born in Evansville, Ind., September 30, 1927, the oldest child of Allen George Plane and Altha Margaret Warren Plane. His father owned and operated a blueprint shop; his mother, the first in her family to attend college, had a brief career as a teacher before becoming a full-time homemaker. Raised during the Great Depression, Plane and his sister, Marylu Plane Sonntag, learned to value education, high achievement, service to others and hard work. An enthusiastic alumnus of Bosse High School in Evansville, Plane attended Evansville College (now the University of Evansville), graduating magna cum laude in 1948. An avid musician, Plane played trumpet in a dance band while still in high school. He also paid some of his college expenses by serving as a DJ for two local radio stations, playing classical music on WEOA and hosting his own jazz show, which he named “Plane and Solid,” on WIKY.
The late 1940s saw the beginning of the Cold War, and Plane set his sights on a career in science after winning a scholarship from the Atomic Energy Commission. Plane took up doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, working in inorganic chemistry under the direction of Professor Henry Taube, later a Nobel Laureate. Plane’s teaching career began unexpectedly when an established professor in the Chicago department failed to show up at the beginning of the semester and Plane was hired as the replacement lecturer. Plane benefited greatly from his time at the University of Chicago—not least because it was there that he met his first wife, Georgia Ames, a biology graduate student.
Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1951, Plane took a position at the National Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He remembered that in that era of intensive Cold War escalation, Oak Ridge looked more like an Army encampment than a place to raise a young family. Plane’s advisor recommended him for an instructor opening at Cornell University, which like many mid-century institutions was growing rapidly and benefitting from public investment in higher education and research. In 1952 the young couple moved to Ithaca, N.Y. and had a son and daughter. By 1954 Plane was advanced to a tenure-track position, achieving tenure in 1958 and the rank of full professor in 1962. His specialty areas included spectroscopy, ion exchange and hydrolytic polymerization. He authored or co-authored over 70 research papers and mentored numerous Ph.D. students.
But tragedy struck the young family when Georgia Plane developed cancer and passed away in 1961. Although Georgia was already seriously ill, the couple insisted on completing as much of a year’s sabbatical as they could, living in Sweden and Great Britain while Plane pursued a senior research fellowship funded by the U.S. Public Health Service at both the Nobel Institute in Stockholm and at Oxford University. Georgia left behind two small children (ages 6 and 7); a succession of housekeepers plus Sunday meals “out” enabled Plane to continue his career and be a single father in an era that knew few such families.
Plane’s teaching career proved one of the most enduring successes of a life full of achievement. Early on he formed a writing partnership with a fellow professor, Michell A. Sienko, and the pair—both dissatisfied with the available teaching materials for the freshman chemistry course—coauthored their own textbook. “Sienko and Plane” would become the standard introductory text for generations of students, going through multiple editions and translated into numerous languages.
In 1963 Plane married Mary Moore, who had served for more than a decade as assistant director for programs at Cornell’s Willard Straight Student Union. Two more children joined the family in quick succession, making a family of six.
Plane’s career brought him close to the turbulence of the 1960s. He took a semester-long sabbatical in spring 1969 at the University of California at Berkeley. The political climate of the late 1960s brought numerous challenges on both coasts; dodging tear gas and protestors, Plane and his family had many adventures in that year, which saw the Berkeley People’s Park riot and, back in Ithaca, the armed takeover of Willard Straight Hall at Cornell. On his return to Cornell, now a faculty trustee of the university, he served on the selection committee that nominated then-provost Dale Corson as Cornell’s new president. Some months later, Corson asked Plane to serve as provost, a position he held until 1974.
Committed to a career in administration, Plane was recruited and became president and CEO of Clarkson College in Potsdam, New York. Plane expanded the institution’s reach and scope during his eleven years, leading efforts that reestablished it as Clarkson University during his tenure. Accomplishments included the establishment of new programs in management, the construction of new buildings, the advancement of digital learning and, with his second wife, Mary, the formation of the successful Clarkson School for gifted high school seniors.
On retirement from Clarkson, Plane moved to the family farm in Ovid, N.Y., which was purchased in 1964. From 1972 onward the Planes had developed the property, located next to Cayuga Lake, as one of the first commercial vineyards in upstate New York to grow both European vinifera and local hybrid varietal wine grapes. Plane served as the winemaker, while Mary Plane was the viticulturist and business manager.
But Plane soon left this bucolic retirement when asked to serve as director of Cornell University’s Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station, a position that married his talent for administration with his knowledge and experience in agriculture and oenology. Next, he was recruited to serve as interim president of Wells College, which at the time was still a women’s college. Having been a successful fundraiser at Clarkson, he played a similar role in this new position, which he held from 1991 to 1995.
The recipient of several honorary degrees, Plane noted that his most important lessons learned from mentors had been to proceed with honesty and directness. He learned “to find the wise people in your organization” and trust their advice. In addition, Plane noted that students, faculty and alumni each believe the institution belongs to them, and conflicts can arise among these constituencies. Instead of pushing a particular solution, a wise administrator, in Plane’s view, listens to others and nurtures their ideas. He noted wryly, however, that sometimes “if I let it be known that I favored a particular solution to a problem, that way [would be] poisoned. Instead, we had to talk until one of the others stumbled on my solution.” Plane nicknamed this method “collegial deciding.”
By 1995, Plane finally retired for good. He and his wife Mary sold their farm winery—the largest part of which now operates as Thirsty Owl Winery. The couple moved to New Mexico to be nearer children and grandchildren, and they embraced a new chapter of volunteerism and community service in Albuquerque, including with the community food banks and the Thrift Shop Ministry of the Cathedral of St. John (Episcopal).
Predeceased by his first wife, Georgia, Plane is survived by a son, David Plane (Katharine Jacobs) of Tucson, Ariz. and Southport, Maine; granddaughters Emily Reilly (Michael) and Ellen Plane; daughter Martha Lu Plane of Wadesboro, N.C.; and grandson David Khan (Elexa).
Plane is also survived by his wife of 55 years, Mary; daughter Ann Marie Plane of Santa Barbara, Calif.; grandchildren Daniel Weinraub and Sarah East (Clayton); daughter Jennifer Moore Plane of Burlington, Vt. and Albuquerque, N.M.; grandsons Elliott and Warren Hartman; and seven great-grandchildren. Two grandchildren, Samantha Khan Vitiello and Matthew Khan, predeceased their grandfather. Plane’s sister, Marylu (Plane) Sonntag, of Evansville, Ind. and a nephew, Robert Sonntag, also of Evansville, survive him as well.
A service of remembrance was held Friday, Aug. 10, at 2 p.m. at Carter Hall in the La Vida Llena retirement community in Albuquerque; arrangements for a memorial service at Cathedral of St. John (Episcopal) will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, and in light of his lifelong belief in the value of education, donations may be made to any of the institutions where he worked or to the school, college, or university closest to your heart.