Tom Plunkett ’61, MS’62 was headed for a paper mill job in the late 1950s until a high school counselor recognized he had other gifts. “She got me a scholarship to UW–Madison, a job, a room,” Plunkett recalls. “My dad, who worked in a mill, had no concept of a university education but as we drove to Madison, he suggested that I try engineering, because he’d worked with engineers in the mill.”
So, Plunkett studied mechanical engineering while he worked part-time recording semester grades by hand for the university and washing dishes at the all-female Chadbourne Hall. “There were 22 guys working in a dorm with 700 girls. I ended up marrying one of those girls,” he says of his wife, Nancy.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1961, Plunkett decided to stay on for his master’s in nuclear engineering. Armed with those credentials, he embarked on a career that took him to Douglas Aircraft in California for eight years and then decades working in the nuclear power industry. He gained a reputation as an engineer who could improve low-performing power plants, including Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point plant in southern Florida. Plunkett served there as the area was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Plunkett rose through the ranks to become the president of Florida Power and Light’s nuclear division in Jupiter, Florida.
“My dad, who worked in a mill, had no concept of a university education but as we drove to Madison, he suggested that I try engineering, because he’d worked with engineers in the mill.”
In 2001, Plunkett retired and moved to Burnett County, Wisconsin. Shortly afterward, an F3 tornado ravaged an area near the Burnett County town of Siren, killing two and injuring 16. Using the knowledge of disaster recovery that he had gained after Hurricane Andrew, Plunkett volunteered to help in the post-disaster effort.
Plunkett says that his UW–Madison education helped him get in on the ground floor of the emerging nuclear industry. “It was a great education,” says Plunkett, who has established a nuclear engineering scholarship for undergraduates in their junior and senior years at the UW’s College of Engineering. “It’s just a little payback for what UW–Madison did for me,” Plunkett adds.
Thank you, Burnett County, for Tom Plunkett — who shows us that with determination and skill, we can advance nuclear power generation to meet the nation’s expanding energy needs.