Caryl Donnelly Plunkett

Caryl Donnelly Plunkett

 An Appreciation by

 William O’Shaughnessy

 September 11, 2015


I once received by U.S. postal service a letter from a William Plunkett, Esquire. As I usually do not open letters from practitioners or solicitors of the Law, I did not rush to retrieve said missive from Plunkett, Esquire. “You’d better open it,” said Cindy Hall Gallagher, amanuensis without whom my life would resemble a seven car pile-up.

Mercifully lacking any of the usual bad news conveyed by your typical lawyer’s letter, I found instead a very nice note from this Mr. Plunkett, Esquire complimenting us on a tribute we had broadcast over the radio airwaves. He called it a “eulogy.”

Now as I do not like to do eulogies or even think about them, I quickly deposited the compliment in our very thin “nice letters” file which in bulk, depth and volume, pales in comparison to our “not so nice letters” file which after some 50 years is fairly bursting out of the file cabinets.

When he wrote his gracious note some years ago, I’m quite certain William Plunkett never anticipated that I would one day take pen in clumsy hand and sit over a pad with lines across it onto which I must now write words and later speak them into a radio microphone about the passing of one Caryl Donnelly Plunkett who died earlier this week after some 70 years as the matriarch of a powerful and influential New York and Connecticut family. She was his wife, this Caryl Donnelly Plunkett.

All of this must be told on this particular radio station because Caryl and her husband Bill Plunkett, barrister, lived together for many years in Tarrytown, in Sleepy Hollow country, where they were neighbors of the Rockefellers and patrons of Historic Hudson Valley and Phelps Hospital.

Our colleagues in the public press and especially our friends at Page Six always refer to Caryl Donnelly’s surviving husband Bill as a “power broker” and “king-maker.” On the morning after the worst night of his life when Mario Cuomo lost to George Pataki, Mario Cuomo was on the phone “Do you know the Plunketts?”

Plunkett, you see, took a law firm once called Plunkett & Jaffe and built it into a legal and lobbying powerhouse with lines into the Executive Mansion and the New York State Legislature in Albany. This occurred when one of his junior partners George Elmer Pataki became governor and another partner – the estimable John Cahill – started thinking about running for attorney general. It was also at this time that a daughter of Caryl Donnelly and William Plunkett advised governors of Connecticut on judgeships. One of the firm’s clients owns a big chunk of Ground Zero real estate and their children are making their mark in law enforcement, real estate and high finance. And a son-in-law who practically ran the Justice Department in Washington, may one day be a governor of Connecticut. But this is about Caryl Donnelly Plunkett who left us just before the current, sad September weekend.

And if you lay the appellation “power broker” on her famous husband you have to also acknowledge that Miss Donnelly was very much The Power behind the kingmaker. They especially know of her standing and stature up in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut where this amazing Caryl Plunkett was identified as one of the fabled Donnelly girls of Bantam Lake where the Plunketts summered each year before life turned sad and difficult as she battled the cancer that took her a few days ago.

A man named Jim Lamond walked out of Murphy’s Pharmacy this morning with his fancy dog and the daily newspapers with tears in his eyes after being told of Caryl Donnelly’s passing. And Mark Murphy, an affable, gregarious townie who, with his sister Marla runs this old-fashioned family drug store, went suddenly silent. And Father Robert Tucker, the charismatic, most colorful pastor of Saint Anthony’s, the Roman church in the little town, was on the phone requesting prayers for Mrs. Plunkett. In his most direct manner and completely typical way, the priest Tucker even directed an Irish broadcaster to weigh in with prayers.

“Look … I’m desperate … I’ve even got to ask you, O’Shaughnessy. This was a special person. Start praying.” As Tucker is a “Three Hail Mary’s for a homicide” priest and known in these parts as “The God-Father,” I quickly mumbled some prayers for all the good they will do.

Timothy Dolan, the Cardinal archbishop of New York will have more to say and do it much more artfully and gracefully than I am able at 1:30 Monday in the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in New York City.

It is almost certain he will speak of her influence “behind the scenes.” I know, I know preachers have spoken for years about women who were “powers behind the throne.” They struggle to find a way to exalt and memorialize a woman’s standing and stature in marriages and in our midst. They do this with many words and elegant paragraphs. I don’t struggle with this refrain. I have just two words to sum up the category: Caryl Plunkett.

Dolan will speak to those assembled of the clout of the Plunkett family and of Caryl’s personal dynamism, energy and effervescence. And Timothy Dolan will then look out in the great cathedral on Fifth Avenue and acknowledge her generosity of purse and spirit and recite how much she did for Catholic charities, hospitals, religious orders and high schools in his care and keeping. This will take some time.

One can expect His Eminence will also speak of Miss Donnelly-Plunkett’s bravery and courage as she checked in and out of hospitals all up and down the East Coast as she refused to yield to the killer that pursued her for almost 10 years. At the Sloan-Kettering hospital where they daily battle this lethal stuff, she was known as “Lazarus.” The priest Dolan, who slipped into Sloan-Kettering earlier this week without staff and miter or the trappings of his high Roman office to whisper prayers into Caryl Plunkett’s ear won’t have to work too hard to get this particular dame into Heaven.

And then, on Tuesday, up in Litchfield, the aforementioned old country priest Robert Tucker will say final prayers over the woman as she is laid to rest.

She was a high church lady who presided over a family that rivaled the Maras and Rooneys and she was a Dame of Malta, the fabled international Catholic charitable organization.

Mrs. Plunkett had homes in Westchester, Connecticut, the Carolinas and Florida and she was known on the Sleepy Hollow fairway overlooking the Hudson River. Such disparate types as Paul Tagliabue and Senator Lamar Alexander would take a Plunkett call in every season.

Caryl Donnelly Plunkett leaves two daughters, many sons, a whole posse of grandchildren.    And that one husband.

The goodness and marvelous spirit of the woman will inspire them – and all of us – for a good long time.

I hate eulogies …