Columbia-born Leona Plaugh gave her adulthood to the civic life of the capital city and crashed through some glass ceilings along the way.
The former city administrator and city manager and current councilwoman representing residents of the southeastern portion of Columbia died Wednesday morning at home surrounded by family after a two-year battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. She was 66.
“Leona has always been a fighter,” said her husband of 45 years, Joe Plaugh. “When she was diagnosed, we knew this was going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. Throughout the fight, she remained focused on her family, the Lord and her service to Columbia.
When she was diagnosed, we knew this was going to be the biggest challenge of our lives.
Leona Plaugh’s husband, Joe
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“Columbia is home, and that’s something she never forgot,” Joe Plaugh said. “She loved our great city and I’m grateful for all the support she has received over the years in this battle.”
Tough-minded, with an attention to the details of governing, Plaugh fashioned herself into an outspoken advocate for fiscal conservatism. In public as well as private meetings, Plaugh almost always asked the most questions and the most detailed questions.
Her understanding of municipal financing and a get-it-done personality fueled respect from her backers and resentment from her detractors.
Her determination kept Plaugh from accepting the reality of her illness. Knowing that treatments and even amputation of her right leg had not stopped the extraskeletal soft tissue osteosarcoma, Plaugh decided she would not lose the battle, said Lynn Bailey, a friend of 33 years.
She’s not a woman who leaves things undone.
Lynn Bailey, a friend of 33 years
“She feels there are lots of things she’s leaving undone,” Bailey said. “She’s not a woman who leaves things undone. Her mission is not complete.”
Even as Bailey, a healthcare economist, would review statistics on how deadly the sarcoma is, “She wasn’t going to hear it,” Bailey recalled. “It didn’t apply to her.” In mid-October 2015, six weeks after her amputation, Plaugh announced that she was cancer free.
“I became very skeptical,” said friend Cathy Novinger, who herself has battled cancer for 11 years and survived seven rounds of chemotherapy, a radiation treatment and four surgeries from what started as Stage 3 ovarian cancer. “I’ve never used the ‘cured’ word,” the businesswoman said. “I thought then that she might be in a little state of denial.”
The councilwoman had been under hospice care at her home since mid July, Bailey said.
Plaugh chose to not undergo further surgery. She sought qualification for clinical trails for a new form of sarcoma treatment at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, her husband said.
Doctors decided against more treatment and she entered hospice care.
Plaugh, who has cut vacations short to attend hastily called council meetings, began missing meetings this year during rounds of cancer treatment. After the amputation, she got around City Hall in a wheelchair and crutches.
As the illness progressed, Plaugh would participate in meetings through Skype. Her final meeting was council’s July 19 daytime work session. She did not have the stamina to participate in the longer meeting that evening.
In recent weeks, even fellow council members, longtime city staffers and the city manager were not able to speak to Plaugh. Always a fierce protector of her private life, no one was surprised that she chose to remain silent during her final weeks.
She represented residents in the conservative District 4, which stretches from the Heathwood neighborhood down to the Hamptons neighborhoods behind the VA hospital.
City Hall will have to set a special election in District 4 because a year and three months remain on Plaugh’s term that expires Dec. 31, 2017.
Making her way in a man’s world of politics
Plaugh considered former mayor Kirk Finlay to be her mentor as she forged political connections with other powerful men and a handful of women who had political clout in the 1970s, ’80s and even the ’90s, Bailey said.
Plaugh, who became a city employee in 1975, learned to play golf so that she could participate in Congressman Jim Clyburn’s annual golf tournament.
We were uppity women pushing against the glass ceiling of the Good Ol’ Boy’s system in South Carolina.
friend Lynn Bailey
“We were uppity women pushing against the glass ceiling of the Good Ol’ Boy’s system in South Carolina,” said Bailey, whose son grew up with Plaugh’s son, Allen. Allen and his wife Ashley live in Atlanta with their daughter Emma Rose.
Bailey called Plaugh a “groundbreaker,” who often was ‘the smartest person in the room ... and that scares people – mostly males.”
Several years after she was fired as city manager in 2003, Plaugh ran for council – joining the body of politicians who had given her the boot. She won the seat held by Kirkman Finlay – her mentor’s son – when he decided to run for a state House seat.
Plaugh and Mayor Steve Benjamin often clashed, especially over the fights to invest nearly $70 million to help develop the BullStreet complex and to have the city pay for almost all of the $37 million baseball stadium that opened this spring. She and Benjamin butted heads over his attempt in 2013 to change the form of city government to that of a strong mayor rather than a strong city manager.
“Leona dedicated her entire professional life to the City of Columbia,” Benjamin said Wednesday. “... We’re grateful for her years of dedication to our city, and we send our heartfelt prayers and condolences to her family.”
City manager Teresa Wilson added her condolences. “(A)s a city family, will work together to continue her legacy of community development and citizen empowerment. She touched many lives, developed numerous significant initiatives and was committed to a lifetime of service to the community.”
The fierce advocate for the taxpayer was a far cry from the take-no-prisoners city manager who kept an enemies list of city employees in her office computer. She labeled staffers under mysterious headings of “destroy,” “conquer,” “alligators” and “moats” in documents acquired by The State newspaper.
The four-page document containing that information became public during a legal fight over Plaugh’s demotion of the city’s former public works director, Wanda Dunn. Dunn, one of seven on the “destroy” list, sued the city.
Plaugh the city manager was one to stand her ground. When some on council criticized her over her position on the city budget, Plaugh proposed a policy in 2002 to ban council members from publicly dressing down other members or the city manager.
She would challenge them when she thought they were making a wrong decision.
friend Cathy Novinger, about Plaugh and City Council members
“She would challenge them when she thought they were making a wrong decision,” said Novinger, who sometimes sat in on closed-door sessions as an executive representing SCANA Corp., a utility with more than 700,000 customers. “She knew that council was her boss. I can tell you that’s what I most admired about her.”
The document found on her computer prompted council to fire Plaugh in 2003.
Never one to give up easily, she fought back, filing an age and gender discrimination complaint. She was fired twice more before reaching a settlement and giving up on a career as a city administrator.
It required a lot of effort to put that setback behind her because Plaugh is not prone to letting go, Bailey said. “She was talked into walking away and putting things down (only) when any additional effort is futile.”
Plaugh once dismissed her tumultuous, two-year tenure as city manager this way: “What was then was then, and what’s now is now.”
Even though many wrote her off from public service, Plaugh was away from City Hall just seven years as a small-business owner.
She decided to seek the District 4 seat then pursued the job with old-fashioned shoe-leather campaigning. Plaugh wore out four pairs of shoes in that initial campaign, said Bailey, adding that she stood at intersections for her friend on cold mornings holding political signs.
Plaugh was elected in 2010 to represent arguably the city’s most well-heeled and conservative district – but by just fewer than 300 votes.
“I see it as an opportunity of service – that God gave me a unique talent or perspective that I can bring to a city at the time that they need it,” she said at the time.
She was re-elected in November 2013 with more than 68 percent of the vote.
Her frequent resistance to proposals by Benjamin and what then was council’s majority, earned her a reputation of being council’s “no-sayer.”
Novinger said she cautioned Plaugh about that political posture.
Leona, I want you to be guarded about just saying ‘no’ all the time.
friend Cathy Novinger
“Leona, I want you to be guarded about just saying ‘no’ all the time,” Novinger said she advised her in the spring of 2014, just before Plaugh learned she had cancer. “If you can’t bring the votes with you, you’re going to become invisible. And I don’t want that for you because this community needs you.”
Hard-charger even on vacations
A lifelong Columbian, Plaugh was born July 3, 1950, and often celebrated her birthdays during the July 4 holiday, friends said. Her father had a jewelry store on Taylor Street, Kirby Jewelry.
Before that, he had a grocery store on Assembly Street when it was a dirt road, she once said. He used to deliver chickens on his bicycle. Plaugh’s mother grew up on a farm off Monticello Road and became a nurse.
Plaugh and her husband Joe were married for decades. One of their favorite pastimes was snow skiing, which she would plan in detail to include an itinerary – as she did most everything, Bailey said.
Bailey, with joy and sadness in her voice, recalled her friend’s penchant for taking over and pushing through, even on vacations and road trips. Neither rain nor sleet would alter the Plaugh itinerary, her friend recalled, chuckling over Joe having to push Plaugh’s mother in a wheelchair through a winter storm in Boston.
“You haven’t had the full Leona experience until you’ve traveled with Leona,” Bailey said. “‘Sleeping,’ Plaugh would say, ‘You can do that at home.’
“The good news is you don’t have to make any decisions,” Bailey said of outings with her friend. “The bad news is you better bring your track shoes.
“Being Leona’s friend,” she said, “was not for wimps.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Filling the District 4 seat
No firm dates have been set for either a special election or for filing dates for candidates. However, City Hall released an explanation Wednesday about the broad process it must follow.
City Council will hold a meeting to set an election date as well as decide when candidates must file for the seat, which represents residents of the southeast part of the city.
Election date, by city law, will be set for 13 Tuesday after the seat is declared vacant. Filing for candidates will remain open 10 days.
City code does not address replacing the mayor pro tempore, a position that Leona Plaugh held. Council could elect an interim mayor pro tempore at the meeting called to set an election date.