Joseph M. Plasko, Tamaqua Bureau Chief of the TIMES NEWS, died unexpectedly this morning in Lehigh Valley Hospital, Salisbury Township.
Besides serving as bureau chief, he was a reporter, sports writer, entertainment writer, and photographer for the TIMES NEWS.
A Tamaqua resident, he was married to the former Donna Markovchick.
"The TIMES NEWS family has suffered a tremendous loss," commented Bob Urban, TIMES NEWS Editor. "Joe was so much more than just our Tamaqua Bureau Chief. He was a good friend, and a wonderful human being who brought great passion and loyalty to his work. Whether it was a sporting event in Tamaqua he was covering, a municipal meeting, a concert at Penn's Peak, Joe brought a tremendous amount of professionalism to his job."
Urban continued, "There wasn't a task you couldn't ask him to do. But he was also so much more than just a journalist. He was a good will ambassador for the paper and especially for Tamaqua, his hometown. He loved the town and the people, and expressed it in his writing and in his involvement in the community.
"Replacing Joe will be an almost impossible task. He meant so much to The TIMES NEWS. Our deepest sympathies go out to his wife Donna and all his family members. It is a great loss for many."
Plasko has been working for the TIMES NEWS for over 30 years, starting with the sports department and eventually being promoted to Tamaqua bureau chief 11 years ago.
Fred L. Masenheimer, publisher of the TIMES NEWS, said of Plasko's passing, "It is hard to put into words my feelings in learning of the passing of Joe. He was such a valued member of the TIMES NEWS family. Our thoughts and prayers are with Donna and their families.
"Joe was a tireless worker and his talents ran the gamut of anything we could ask for in a writer and photographer," Masenheimer remarked. "It didn't matter if it was hard news or sports coverage, Joe was there to make sure the Times News had the story. But just as important, Joe was one of our best ambassadors in Tamaqua and the surrounding area. His devotion to 'His' town was unmatched. He spent a lot of his spare time working hard to further the goals of many of Tamaqua's civic organizations. He will be missed because today the TIMES NEWS not only lost one of our best co-workers but the TIMES NEWS family and 'His' town lost a good friend."
Plasko was an active member and former president of the Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce. He served in various other organizations in the borough and was well-known as a town historian.
Two of his greatest passions were sports and music.
With sports, he excelled at promoting local athletes, especially those from his alma mater, Tamaqua Area High School. He also was an avid Penn State football fan, having graduated from the university.
He covered about 75 percent of the concerts at Penn's Peak and was knowledgable in virtually any type of music. His joy was interviewing artists who came to the venue.
So great was his love of music that two years ago he attended six of the seven concerts within seven days at Bethlehem's MusikFest.
Ed Hedes, TIMES NEWS managing sports editor, said, "From the time Joe joined the TIMES NEWS Sports Department... he was 'Mr. Tamaqua.' I never had to worry about anything concerning the Blue Raiders sports program because Joe was always on top of things. He covered our high school wrestling and track and field beats like no other and I would always go by his word when picking Athletes of the Year in those sports.
"Penn State football was another one of his many sports loves, so it wasn't hard to get him to go to Beaver Stadium each fall to cover the Nittany Lions," Hedes said.
The sports editor added, "We'll miss his daily phone calls because he kept up with the entire local sports scene even though he was the Tamaqua bureau chief. Even though he's left us, his memories will always be part of the TIMES NEWS sports department."
Kathy Kunkel, a co-worker in the Tamaqua office in all of Plasko's 11 years there, said, "I've always thought of Joe as 'Mr. Tamaqua'. He didn't let his promotion to Tamaqua Bureau Chief stand in the way of his first love – sports. He was such a staunch supporter of his alma mater that we teased him about bleeding blue and white."
She recalls, "He burned the midnight oil many a night trying to do the jobs of bureau chief and sports writer. His love of music found an outlet when Pencor bought Penn's Peak. It was just a few years later he discovered his true love, his wife, Donna. Instead of slowing down, he convinced her to attend sporting events and concerts along with him. He will be missed by all who knew him."
Another Tamaqua co-worker, Donald Serfass, was naturally shocked of hearing of Plasko's death.
"Joe had a passion for the people of the Tamaqua area and that devotion was obvious in all he did," said Serfass. "Staff members in the TN Tamaqua Bureau always honored and recognized his loyalty by saying Joe bled blue and white, and that's so true. His enthusiasm was contagious and he was an inspiration, not just to me, but to anybody who had the privilege to work along side him or serve on a committee with him. He was compassionate, thoughtful and caring, and generously offered the gift of his talent to help make our area a better place. Our hearts are heavy. Joe left us much too soon."
Laurie Heller, of the Tamaqua office, shared, "Joe was not only a co-worker, he was my friend. I have lost a good friend and Tamaqua has lost one of it's beloved sports fanatics. No one will ever replace the passion that man had for his home town."
Todd Miller, owner of M&S Hardware in Tamaqua and president of the Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce, was stunned when informed of Plasko's passing.
"Joe was a valuable member of our chamber of commerce and will be sorely missed," he said. "His contributions to the chamber were invaluable."
Miller recalled how Plasko often interjected borough history into chamber discussions.
"Joe was always willing to do whatever you asked of him," Miller said. "He always was willing to bring that historical knowledge to our meetings. He always brought us back using his historical knowledge of things that happened with businesses or the community."
On a personal note, Miller said, "Just as a guy coming into the store, he was very mild mannered and very well respected. From us personally, me and my family, from my store, and from the Chamber, we send condolences to his wife and his family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family."
One of Plasko's close friends was fellow journalist Doyle Dietz, who is retired from the Reading Eagle and Times but still writes for the Pottsville Republican.
"My first contact with Joe was when he was a student at Tamaqua High and I was covering a sporting event," Dietz said. "Initially, our conversations focused on sports and covering sports, but then I got to know him like a son I never had and discovered the bond we had through similar interests in music especially Southern Blues."
Dietz continued, "I literally attended hundreds of events, including sports and concerts, with Joe over the years and those memories are now more special than ever. Ironically, the last time we were together was for a sporting event to see the Tamaqua-Oley Valley (girls' basketball) game, but most of our pre-and post-game conversation dealt with the upcoming Dave Mason concert and Penn's Peak."
"Joe will be remembered for his honesty, kindness and fairness," he said. "For one so young, he touched so many lives in a positive way, and all who knew him will cherish his memory."
Former Tamaqua Area High School teacher George Taylor, who is a fellow TIMES NEWS employee, recalls that Plasko always had a passion for writing sports, especially about Tamaqua Area High School.
Taylor said, "Joe wrote sports for the school newspaper I advised at Tamaqua High School. He once told me that when he did not make the basketball team, he felt the best way he could still help the team was to write about it for the Blue and White. I think that same philosophy was evident in all of Joe's community involvement."
He added, "Joe offered his help in so many ways. When I was with the boys basketball boosters, Joe provided stats and a coach's story for our program every year. People say all the time that so and so will be missed, but here that sentiment is so accurate. Tamaqua will really miss Joe Plasko."
Taylor's son, Brandon, who is currently residing in China and working for a newspaper there, sent his thoughts about Plasko.
He wrote, "Joe was my editor when I was a correspondent for the TIMES NEWS during internships in high school and college. From covering community events to borough council and other municipal meetings, he really gave me a lot of responsibility that helped me improve my writing and develop as a young journalist. And it was always inspiring to see how many by-lines he could manage every issue. He'll certainly be missed, but I'm really glad I had the chance to work with him."
One of Plasko's beats was covering the Rush Township supervisors.
Steve Simchak, chairman of the board of supervisors, said, "It's shocking what happened. He was a great person and a great journalist. He was very well liked by everybody. I'm in a state of shock."
Rush Township Office workers Terry Conville and Marie Skripnek, e-mailed, "The Rush Township Administration Office would like to extend their deepest sympathy to the family and co-workers of Joe Plasko. Joe was always professional, courteous, and diplomatic in his reporting of news events. He always found the time to cover the stories of local interest in our surrounding communities. Words cannot begin to express our sorrow. Joe will be greatly missed by all of us."
Another correspondent for the TIMES NEWS, Andrew Leibenguth, told how Plasko helped him on a personal level.
"Joe got my first photo in the paper when I joined the Marines many years ago," Leibenguth volunteered. "Ten years later, after my return from a combat tour in Iraq, I found myself struggling with PTSD, depression and having trouble adjusting back to normal life. After many motivating conversations with Joe, he convinced me to write stories and take photos for the TIMES NEWS, knowing that it would keep my mind on more positive things. Little did I know, writing for the TIMES NEWS turned out to be my therapy. I owe Joe so much for how much Joe has helped me."
Leibenguth continued, "Joe has always been involved with so many community activities, ranging from the Tamaqua YMCA, chamber of commerce, parades, and sporting events. He's an amazing man who will never be forgotten by all the thousands of people he's helped.
"Boy did he love Tamaqua and Tamaqua definitely loves him," Leibenguth concluded.
Sank Griffith, funeral director in Tamaqua who owns the E. Franklin Griffiths Funeral Home, said he was meeting with family members later this morning to finalize funeral arrangements.
Griffith said Plasko was a personal friend of his and recalled growing up in the East End of Tamaqua with Plasko.
"His grandparents lived right across the street from us," Griffith said.
He referred to Plasko as "The Pied Piper of Anthracite sports," emphasizing that Plasko not only promoted athletes from his hometown school but those from throughout the entire anthracite region, including Marian Catholic and Panther Valley.
"From my daughter to Erica Barron, any athlete who had coal region ties, Joe was there to do whatever he could to help them," said Griffths, adding, "He was a great guy."