Community mourns the loss of 'Mad Hugger' Joe Plut
Friends, colleagues and former students are mourning the passing of former Central Lakes College instructor Joe Plut Plut--known as the "Mad Hugger"--left a lasting impression with many people in the Brainerd lakes area and beyond for several dec...
Friends, colleagues and former students are mourning the passing of former Central Lakes College instructor Joe Plut
Plut-known as the "Mad Hugger"-left a lasting impression with many people in the Brainerd lakes area and beyond for several decades and all who knew him agree that Plut will never be forgotten.
Plut died Thursday, Jan. 17, in Crosby. He was 82.
Plut, who always had a smile on his face, was known as the "Mad Hugger" as he greeted every person, including every student he had, with a hug dating back to the 1970s.
Plut began teaching in 1965 at Central Lakes College when it was Brainerd State Junior College. Plut fostered the creative communication class and spent his teaching career at the Brainerd campus and also taught an off-campus course at Minneapolis Community and Technical College on Saturdays in the fall of 2003. Plut retired in 2001.
The Crosby native was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2013. In 2016, doctors told him he had two weeks or two years to live, with the implication being no one knows. That year, Plut turned 80 and the CLC Scholarship Foundation and Prairie Bay in Baxter hosted a fundraiser/birthday celebration for him. About 200 people attended and created the "world's biggest hug" with Plut in the middle of a hug chain of people.
Matt Annand, one of three owners of 3 Cheers Hospitality LLC, which operates Prairie Bay, Sherwood Forest, and Lost Lake Lodge, organized the big hug event. Annand is a former student and a good friend of Plut. Plut actually had his own special booth at Prairie Bay, where there is an engraved plaque with his name on it.
"Joe was so gracious, so open and so genuine," Annand said. "He really cared about people. He was selfless. He always cared more about others than himself. ... He was that guy who really cared about people."
Annand and Plut have worked on several projects over the years. In 2013, CLC awarded its food service bid to Prairie Bay and they named the college's cafeteria Happy Joe's Cafe. They also started a Joe Plut Reading Room at Prairie Bay, which spawned the recent start-up of a literary series.
"During our friendship, he was a professor and I was a chef and he would make the most important thing we had in common and make it the biggest thing. He was so giving ... he was an exceptional person and it is hard to see him go.
"You can't say enough about the guy."
After Plut's passing, Annand posted from The Mad Hugger Cafe Facebook page: "It is with great sadness that we share with our Social Media Family the passing of Joe Plut.
"Joe was a wonderful friend and our greatest fan! He personified our values and provided an unmatched example of how to engage with others. Joe loved life and celebrated his infectious joy with anyone fortunate enough to be in his company.
"Joe definitely played favorites ... that is to say if you were having lunch with him or sharing a conversation, you were his favorite person at that moment, and he meant it.
"Our 3 Cheers Staff, along with his family and friends, will miss him dearly."
"The best way to describe Joe is he was a best friend to everyone he knew," Patrick Spradlin, the CLC theater director, said of his colleague. "I met him in 1991 and was taken back by him with the hugging thing. He didn't force it on anyone and after a while I said, 'Sure.'
"Joe had an uncanny ability to remember the names or other details about every student he ever taught. One time (about 12 years ago) we were sitting at a table having lunch and a woman in her 30s came over to table and said 'I bet you don't remember me' and he interrupted her and told her her name and the projects she did, ect. It really floored me on how he remembers everyone's name."
Spradlin and Plut spent a lot of time with theater productions and the production titled "Love Letters" is one Spradlin will never forget. Spradlin said this play was perfect for Plut as it was about two lifelong friends who only corresponded with each other through letters. Spradlin said Plut was a man who wrote letters and maintained lifelong friendships with everyone he knew.
Spradlin said the production was supposed to be on stage for just one summer but it turned into five- to six-year run at venues across the state.
Plut also was known for sharing hundreds of clippings he knew would interest people.
"When Joe retired he dropped several pounds of materials off for me," Spradlin said. "One day we were talking about a play and the next day he brings me reams of material about the play we discussed. The clippings were always very much appreciated."
Larry Kellerman, a former CLC colleague, has known Plut for 54 years and had become close friends.
"A number of friends made several trips to Europe in Italy and France and Joe was always a joy to travel with," Kellerman said. "We all got lost quite a few times and he was always amused by it. ... We're in Florence, Italy, and having lunch in one of the plazas and we were suppose to meet at the art gallery. I said I think it is in this direction, well we went in the wrong direction and were at the Arno River and knew we went the wrong way. ... We had a lot of laughs about these type of trips."
Kellerman said he also worked closely with and had many lunches with Plut when going over his book "Conversations with Jon Hassler." Hassler was an author and former English CLC instructor, who died in 2008.
Plut met Hassler in 1968 at Brainerd Community College where they were both were in the English department. Hassler moved on to St. John's University in 1980, but the correspondence and friendship continued and the two men embarked on the idea of having a series of interviews about Hassler's writing. They began in 1997 with Plut organizing nine interviews covering 20 years of Jon Hassler's writing career. The five years of conversations reveal Hassler's personal character as well as his wit, wisdom and fertile imagination. Through discussing Hassler's books from "Staggerford" (1977) to the "The Dean's List" (1997), the two colleagues revisited themes, characters, and plots and at the same time they retrace Hassler's writing career and literary development over 20 years.
Kellerman said it was tough when Plut was diagnosed with cancer. Kellerman continued to visit Plut when he moved into the Cuyuna Regional Medical Center-Care Center in Crosby. Kellerman would see Plut monthly and bring him a chocolate Dilly Bar from Dairy Queen. Kellerman said Plut's nurses told him he wouldn't eat, but he always "devoured" the Dilly Bars.
"He was in relatively good spirits," Kellerman said of Plut when he saw him the last time on Dec. 18. "We watched a number of YouTube videos on lectures he was a part of that he found fascinating."
Kellerman said Plut was fond of white grigio wine, and Kellerman recalled a time trying to order something different while he and Plut gathered with a group at a patio bar.
"I came in and said 'I guess I'll have a beer,'" Kellerman said. "And he looked over the top of his glasses and said 'A beer, Mr. Kellerman?' He had a sense of humor and we had a lot of good laughs. He always enjoyed eating out and he would be out with many different people."
The year he retired, Plut started his scholarship fund-Joseph Plut Scholarship Fund-after he received a $3,000 donation from a former nontraditional student, Mildred Stave. The fund has since grown to $50,000.
The scholarship fund, which is through the CLC Foundation, has helped more than 50 students over the years to further their college careers in the liberal arts.
History of the hug
The hugging began in December of 1972 after Plut heard a speech by Leo Buscaglia, a professor at the University of Southern California, at a gathering in Superior, Wis. In a 2016 Dispatch interview, Plut said Buscaglia, who was also known as Dr. Love, talked about accepting yourself and others. Buscaglia told the audience he was going to hug everyone at the end of his talk.
"He came down and gave me a hug and after that I said I was going to hug my students," Plut said. "So when I went back to my class I told my students I was going to give them all a hug after class.
"It more than inspired me, it made me a madman. I took it to heart."
Plut said he didn't hug a lot before the talk.
"I didn't hug my dad until all this," Plut said. "I hugged him finally and it was hard, for men to hug their fathers. But now, look out."
Plut said when he started hugging all his students in class there were very few who didn't want to hug. He said he could tell when a student didn't want to hug, so he would offer them a handshake. Plut said before the hugs, he used to shake students' hands to help him remember their name.