Isle of Palms resident Ron Plunkett received South Carolina’s highest civilian honor earlier this month. On Aug. 1, Plunkett was presented The Order of the Palmetto, the state’s lifetime achievement award for surpassing the expectations of his public service that spans over five decades.
The prestigious award dates back to 1971, recognizing those who have made significant contributions to the life and well-being to the state and her citizens. In the eyes of Plunkett’s peers and fellow constituents, recommendations from notable dignitaries denote that he’s unequivocally rightful of the honor.
Over the past 50 years, more than 3,500 citizens have received the Order of the Palmetto. Plunkett’s name is now with a list of noteworthy individuals such as singer James Brown, author Pat Conroy, tap dancer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, Gen. William Westmoreland, Civil Rights activist Septima Clark and the “Unknown Confederate Soldier.”
With a resume so extensive, both militarily and civically, Plunkett likes to make self-deprecating jokes that his reputation precedes him. He even tried to discourage family and friends from spreading the word of his recognition for fear of it being misconstrued as arrogant behavior.
Born and raised in 1940s Atlanta, there were signs early on in Plunkett’s upbringing that hinted he had a good sense of humor and a keen sense of lending a hand to others. His high school class voted him most humorous. Plunkett was senior class treasurer, lettered in varsity track and belonged to several clubs and was honored with a Civitan Club Youth of the Year Award.
All the academic and athletic accomplishments of Plunkett’s youth were stepping stones, each one cementing his character and preparing him for the challenges that lay ahead.
In September 1960, Plunkett packed up and left all he knew in the rearview seeking higher education. His sights were set on a rigorous academia. If it didn’t require a challenge it didn’t meet his requirements.
Plunkett enrolled at The Citadel and he went on to earn a bachelor’s in political science. Later on in his career, he acquired a master’s in English, summa cum laude, from the University of Charleston, SC and The Citadel’s combined program.
As a young cadet, he was part of a plethora of honor societies, philanthropic organizations and named wittiest in his class. For Plunkett, it was never about what he had to show on his portfolio for future job employment. It was merely an acknowledgment of what he gave back to his community.
While there, he befriended a cadet by the name of Joe Riley Jr., the former mayor of Charleston. Riley and Plunkett share a camaraderie that dates back 60 years.
“It seems in so many ways that the (award) was designated specifically for Ron Plunkett,” Riley wrote in a nomination to Gov. Henry McMaster. “Ron is a most exemplary citizen, community leader and devoted friend to so many. He never says no to a request to serve and help others.”
Riley went on calling Plunkett “one of the most decent, humble, generous, spirited people I know,” saying he’s the kind of citizen one would hope to be in a community.
At graduation, in 1964, Plunkett was commissioned a Second Lieutenant for active duty in the U.S. Army halfway through the Vietnam War.
He spent the next four years climbing his way through the ranks in Georgia, South Korea, New Orleans and through Vietnam’s jungle terrain. In Vietnam, Plunkett was part of the 64th Quartermaster Battalion, in which his company delivered petroleum products to combat units and airfields in the southern half of the embattled country.
Over the course of his four year active duty assignment, Plunkett rose from Second Lieutenant in the Army’s Transportation Corps to Captain in 30 months. When he left active duty in 1968, he joined the Army Reserve as a Terminal Command Operations Officer for another four years.
Some of his awards were the Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, National Defense Service Medal, US Vietnam Service Medal with four Campaign Stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Commemorative Medal.
However, Plunkett’s service didn’t stop there. During and after a 41 year career in the steamship business with Maersk-SeaLand, he returned to a familiar pastime. In 2010, he became the Red Shirt Volunteer Coordinator for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Convention and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal of the South Carolina Military Department, the co-sponsor along with The Citadel, of the annual reunion.
Here, he forged a friendship with Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen James Livingston as has served as his (volunteer) Chief of Staff since then.
“His commitment to serving the state of South Carolina and our local community in Mount Pleasant and Charleston has been aggressive, unselfish and without compromise,” Livingston wrote in a letter recommending Plunkett for the Order of the Palmetto.
Livingston noted how Plunkett went on to serve a maximum of six years on the Patriots Point Foundation too, ascending to the role of vice president. In addition to organizing fundraisers to support Patriots Point exhibits and programs, Livingston was most impressed with Plunkett on a personal level.
“His personal history of achievement and service speaks for itself, but I believe that it is truly the opinions of others who know him that prove how effective he has been in making our nation and our state, much better places,” Livingston added. “I am privileged to know him and honored to be his friend.”
While at Patriots Point, Plunkett fortified relationships with staff and everyday strangers that come to visit the maritime museum. Over time, folks he once referred to as co-workers, he now refers to as friends.
“One look at Ron’s resume will give you insight into his lifetime of achievements and selfless giving of his time for the benefit of South Carolina and the country,” said Jeff Jacobs, close friend and past president of Patriots Point Foundation.
In March, Plunkett was presented the Palmetto Medal, The Citadel’s second-highest honor bestowed for exemplary leadership and service. As for the Order of the Palmetto, he’s too bashful to elaborate on what it means to him deep down because he perceives this as gloating, but is confident the award is a representation of who he is whether or not anybody is watching.