Robert Allen Plane, former provost of Cornell University, died on Aug. 6, 2018 at his home in Albuquerque, N.M. With four children and an eclectic career as an author, instructor, administrator and viticulturist, Plane lived a life of unusually varied accomplishment.
Plane served as provost in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to the Cornell Chronicle, which is run by the University. His time as provost coincided with a period of tumultuous race relations and political unrest throughout the country and on campus.
David Plane recalled his father’s role in the firing of Jerry Lace, the varsity men’s basketball coach from 1970 to 1972. Lace allegedly capped the number of black players allowed on the court at one time, prompting six black players to boycott games in protest.
“President Corson was away at the time so my dad was the one over there, it was a very tense situation. So he said ‘Let’s order a detente,’ and they worked out an agreement and the coach got fired,” David told The Sun. “He always tried to find a better way. That was difficult at the time when everyone was concerned with asking ‘which side are you on?’”
Prior to becoming provost, Plane was a chemistry professor at Cornell and specialized in Raman spectroscopy, ion exchange and hydrolytic polymerization, according to Prof. Emeritus James Burlitch, chemistry, and an obituary provided by Plane’s family.
He received tenure in 1958 and became a full professor in 1962, all while producing a wealth of published material.
In addition to over 70 research papers, Plane collaborated with Prof. Michell J. Sienko, chemistry, to write Chemistry: Principles and Properties, a groundbreaking text based on their chemistry lectures. According to Burlitch, Plane fought to control the cost of the books to lessen the financial impact on students.
“It troubled him greatly and he talked about it, how to keep the cost down. He made the publisher, which was McGraw Hil,l charge no more or less than six dollars for that book. So I think they charged $5.95.”
Burlitch also reflected on Plane’s busy life and the accomplishments he accumulated in his long career at Cornell.
“He made contributions throughout his life. In that regard he had a very full life of influencing both science and people. I can only marvel at his accomplishments,” Burlitch said in an interview with The Sun.
While still a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, Plane met Georgia Ames, a biology graduate student whom he later married. In 1952, the newly-weds moved to Ithaca and had a son, David, and a daughter, Ellen.
In 1969, Plane was on sabbatical from Cornell for a semester and lived in Berkeley, California, a hub of protest.
“My family really saw all that. National Guard troops went by when I was at Berkeley High School. We got tear gassed actually in junior high gym class,” David Plane said.
While Plane was still in Berkeley in April 1969, just five months before taking office as provost, a group of black students occupied Willard Straight Hall in protest, a preview of the challenges Plane would face on the job.
In 1961, Plane went on sabbatical for a year to pursue a fellowship funded by the U.S. Public Health Service at both the Nobel Institute in Stockholm and at Oxford University in England. While abroad, his wife, Georgia Plane, passed away from cancer, leaving the two children in the care of her husband and a succession of housekeepers.
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 it a family of six.
Soon after his second marriage, Plane was awaiting the birth of his first child with Mary when he unknowingly took the first step in kick-starting the wine industry in upstate New York.
In an interview with The Sun, Mary Plane recalled, “One of our girls was about to be born, and he was in the hospital reading the paper cover to cover while waiting for the birth of his baby, and he discovered an ad for 2,000 feet of lakefront with a 3 bedroom ranch style house.”
The Planes purchased the property, which included 200 acres of viable farmland, and began raising wine grapes with the help of an amateur wine-tasting group composed of Cornell faculty and wine connoisseurs.
The quality of their grapes quickly began to pay dividends as buyers took notice, paving the way for the Cayuga Lake wine industry to improve and expand. Plane was instrumental in lobbying to create the Cayuga Lake Wine Growing Region appellation, an important designation for wine producers.
Following his time as Provost, Plane became President and CEO of Clarkson College. He developed a new management program and formed the Clarkson School for gifted high school seniors with Mary’s help.
After leaving Clarkson, Plane was asked to take on the role of director of Cornell’s Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station, now Cornell AgriTech.
In 1991, he served as the interim President for Wells College, an all women’s school at the time, and retired in 1995.
In retirement in Albuquerque, Plane was an active volunteer at community food banks and the Thrift Shop Ministry of the Cathedral of St. John (Episcopal). Kay Sedler, the manager of the thrift shop, worked with Plane for several years.
“Bob was cheerful, good with customers, funny and kind,” Sedler said. “He was always willing to help out in any way he could.”
Born in Evansville, Indiana on Sept. 30, 1927, Plane grew up on a small farm during the height of the Great Depression. He played trumpet in a dance band in high school and hosted his own radio jazz program, “Plane and Solid,” while attending Evansville College (now the University of Evansville), where he graduated magna cum laude in 1948.
He is survived by his son David Plane, daughters Martha Lu Plane, Ann Marie Plane and Jennifer Moore Plane, as well as his wife of 55 years, Mary Plane.