The Voice has always prided itself on being a writers’ paper, a place where those with something to say can give unadulterated and often fiery expression to their views without tailoring them to fit a set style or manner. But one of the paper’s best-kept secrets is its stable of fine editors, savvy enablers who make sure those expressions are coherent, accurate, and at least roughly on point. The Voice lost one of its best such practitioners last week with the death of Ron Plotkin, a 24-year veteran who, in many ways, embodied the paper’s often irascible spirit and its journalistic commitment.
Plotkin, who would have been 62 this December, died Friday, August 9, from a cerebral hemorrhage that felled him three weeks ago while he was home alone in his apartment on St. Marks Place near Tompkins Square Park. He died at Beth Israel Hospital Center without regaining consciousness. He is survived by his father, Isadore; his mother, Yetta; a sister, Karen; and a brother, Gary, all of California. A memorial service is planned for late September in Manhattan.
Plotkin started at the Voice in 1978, and during his tenure was the designated editor-handler for many of the paper’s most prominent—and cantankerous—writers, including Alexander Cockburn and Jack Newfield. Regardless of the writer’s ranking or résumé, however, Plotkin was a stickler for accuracy and clarity, and he could give as good as he got in the paper’s occasionally heated wordsmithing battles.
“He was the model of what a real newspaperman should be—accurate,” said Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who worked with Plotkin for years. “The whole idea of journalism was his life. He had this great ability to concentrate. You couldn’t distract him, you couldn’t budge him.”
A voracious reader, Plotkin stayed tuned to the intricacies of city and national politics, and his knowledge and insight helped many a Voice writer convey the desired message.
“It wasn’t just a piece of copy to him,” said Voice political writer Wayne Barrett. “He was intensely progressive politically and he was happy to be part of the process of putting the material out there.”
Those traits also landed him the position as editor of the Voice‘s letters page for more than 15 years, a sometimes unenviable post in which he imposed the same rigorous scrutiny on readers eager to joust with the paper’s columnists. At the same time, he never ceased to celebrate the page as the publication’s ultimate expression of democracy.
Plotkin’s skills were born of his years as a reporter at several mainstream dailies prior to coming to the Voice. He was born in 1940 in Oil City, Pennsylvania, a small, provincial town with a permanent haze in the air from its oil refineries. From an early age, he was a rooter for the underdog. He was devoted to the then-cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates, and he became a fervent believer in the emerging civil rights movement. He spent one year at Allegheny College but dropped out to join his family, which had moved to Los Angeles. There, he walked into the offices of the old Los Angeles Mirror and was hired as a copyboy, a post he held until the paper’s demise in 1962. He worked next for the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Examiner as a reporter and helped cover the Watts riots and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Later he worked at the San Bernardino Sun Telegram, where he interviewed celebrities ranging from then-California governor Ronald Reagan to rock star Mick Jagger.
He returned east in the early 1970s, working briefly for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. Alcoholism derailed him for several years, but with the help of an aunt, Ruth Oswald, he found his way back to sobriety, as well as to the Voice, where he fit in snugly among a crew that was highly tolerant of those who struggled with demons.
A night owl who preferred working the evening hours, Plotkin walked with a ponderous gait that heralded his arrival at the Voice‘s offices, usually followed by an audible pounding of computer keys. A two-fingered typist, he rescued one of the Voice‘s last typewriters after they were technologically bypassed more than a decade ago and used it to fire off notes to writers and readers alike. In addition to editing, he wrote occasional pieces for the paper, ranging from TV reviews to a plug for a guide to becoming drug-free. A devotee of American roots music, he was a storehouse of knowledge on Sun Records artists, especially those, like Jerry Lee Lewis, who struggled with their own demons. He also conceived and edited a 1985 special supplement to mark the 50th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization he credited with salvaging his life and career.
His longtime friend and companion, former Voice theater critic Roderick Mason Faber, died in 1994, and while Plotkin lived alone, he was a key fixture in his neighborhood, where he served as co-chairman of his block association. “He was kind of the caretaker of the block,” said a neighbor, Anna Sawaryn. “People brought their problems to him and he’d pursue them. He was incredibly unselfish that way.” And that was typical of Ron Plotkin—a private man who treasured the value of public discourse.