Plunkett's character defined a sense of true purpose


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

A decade ago, Tom Plunkett 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 prominent members of the Detroit area bench and bar.

Joining the Tom-Tom combination in the foursome that evening was yet another Tom (Cranmer), a distinguished Miller Canfield attorney who had just completed his presidency of the State Bar of Michigan, and Joe Papelian, a noted corporate attorney with Delphi and the then incoming president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation.

In other words, I was out of my legal element and it showed on the links, as I played “army golf” that evening, displaying a wayward shot regimen of left-right, left-right around the 9-hole course in Birmingham.

Despite my struggles, which included a duck hook drive that nearly clipped a member of the federal judiciary, Tom Plunkett did his best to offer encouraging words, heartily praising the occasional good shot that somehow found the middle of the fairway.

Tom, I discovered quickly that evening, seldom strayed from the fairway, repeatedly striking long and straight shots that made short work of the public course layout. It was a pleasure to watch, especially since I rode his coattails to the winners’ circle that evening as his playing partner, sharing in the first place prize money.

I rightly offered my split to him, seeing that he had performed the lion’s share of the golf work, but he politely declined, trotting out a “Pay It Forward” declaration in the event that the tables were turned somewhere down the road.

Some seven years later, Tom was at his customary best again, this time during an end-of-the season golf banquet that annually was emceed by the late Mike Lavoie, who reveled in presenting a series of half-baked awards to deserving recipients.

That evening, at a watering hole in Ferndale, Tom was accorded the coveted “Mr. Congeniality Award” for his kind, compassionate, and self-effacing ways. A moment after he accepted the award, I took an unexpected turn in the spotlight, earning the so-called “Straight Arrow Award,” a dubious honor that prompted attorney Plunkett to register an objection.

“Kirvan doesn’t deserve that award,” Plunkett shouted in his best lawyerly voice from the far reaches of the room while cracking a smile. “He hasn’t hit a straight shot in his life.”

Of course, truth is an absolute defense in defamation cases, so I decided against taking on “Mr. Congeniality” in the court of golf law, which was a wise move based on his track record of legal success.

Tom, who was claimed by cancer last month at age 78, was a treasured friend. He personified the best that a man devoted to his family and faith has to offer. In short, he was a true “prince of a fellow,” as many admirers noted during a vigil and funeral mass.

Attorney Rick Rassel, a partner in the Birmingham firm of Williams Williams Rattner & Plunkett, was among those who paid special tribute to his late friend and mentor.

“Tom hired me on behalf of the firm in March 1998, fresh out of a judicial clerkship,” Rassel told those gathered for the October 25 vigil. “I was very wet behind the ears. Tom soon became my mentor, friend, and moral compass. I immediately attached myself to his hip with respect to his great law practice at the firm. 

“Tom had many exceptional talents, but one of them was the ability to transition from the role of serious, dedicated lawyer to just one of the guys who could enjoy a good laugh, round of golf, or a light moment,” related Rassel, a Marquette University alum who earned his law degree in 1997 from Wayne State.  “A great example is two stories I remember from my early practice with Tom, circa 2000.” 

The “first story,” Rassel recalled, involved a request by a “very well-known east coast real estate developer to have our firm” concoct an excuse to suppress crucial evidence in an important case.

To Plunkett, the case was more than clear.

“I sought Tom’s guidance and without hesitation Tom fired the client on behalf of the firm,” Rassel said. “Tom would have none of it. 

“He was not going to compromise his personal ethics, mine, those of the firm or the legal system for any reason, period. It was as simple as that, a clarifying moment in my legal career. The client later acquiesced to turn over the evidence and the case was resolved, but I never forgot that crucial professional lesson that Tom taught me.” 

The “second story” was of a much lighter nature and reflected “Tom’s joyful sense of when to take an opportunity” to relax and enjoy the fruits of labor, according to Rassel. 

“Tom and I were involved in a fairly large case involving a construction project on a golf course,” Rassel related. “Tom wanted to conduct a ‘site inspection’ of the construction project but told me to bring my golf clubs, ‘just in case.’

“We may or may not have observed in any meaningful way the construction project that day, but we had a great time playing golf, enjoying life and a break from the office that Tom carefully orchestrated,” Rassel recalled with a smile.

And “for the record,” Rassel noted, “we later won the case hands down,” bringing a matter of “course” to a fitting end.

“That was Tom,” proclaimed Rassel, “orchestrating a great legal success while participating fully in the enjoyment of life.”