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Linda Plaut, Newton’s longtime director of cultural affairs, dies at 78

Ms. Plaut was appointed to chair the city’s bicentennial parade and was the first director of the Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs.
Ms. Plaut was appointed to chair the city’s bicentennial parade and was the first director of the Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs.Howard Sholkin

At the Newton Tricentennial in the spring of 1988, Linda Plaut marveled at the turnout and the talents of some 300 resident volunteers.

“Talent like this could not be bought at any price,” Ms. Plaut, who chaired the event’s programs, told the Globe, adding that “the price for privacy in too many suburbs is loneliness, apathy, disenfranchisement. People feel connected in Newton because they give to the city. That is what we are celebrating here.”

She spoke from experience. When she moved to Newton in 1973, Ms. Plaut felt that same isolation before visiting Mayor Theodore Mann’s office. She subsequently was appointed to chair the city’s bicentennial parade, served in the administrations of five mayors over four decades, and was the first director of the Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs.

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Over the years, her numerous projects and programs as originator or facilitator included the Heartbreak Hill International Youth Race, July Fourth fireworks at Albemarle Field, NewtonSERVES (a day of communitywide service), Halloween Window Painting for youngsters, a Festival of the Arts, and the nonprofit Newton Community Pride that pairs volunteers with city staff.

Ms. Plaut died of cancer Feb. 17 in her Newton home, which was always open to visitors from abroad as well as to musicians and artists who appeared at city events. She was 78.

“Linda was an incredible mix of energy and charm,” former mayor David Cohen said. “She had a mission in life: to make sure Newton would be a community of neighbors. She brought people together and she was an expert networker before the term even existed.”

Ruthanne Fuller, Newton’s current mayor, noted that Ms. Plaut had no model to follow. Instead, “she charted the course that has made arts and culture so much a part of life in Newton,” Fuller said. “To be in Linda’s orbit was to be part of her team. She had an uncanny ability to find someone’s talent and put them to work.”

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When Laurie Palepu met Ms. Plaut 14 years ago, Palepu mentioned that young children in Newtonville needed an indoor play space in the winter. Ms. Plaut’s answer was “yes,” but on the condition that neighborhood volunteers had to clean up the then-shuttered Carr School, and also donate the toys.

“I remained friends with her and worked on other projects,” Palepu said. “When you were around Linda, she made it fun and infectious. Linda made Newton a better place and she’s one of the more remarkable people I have ever known.”

Gloria Gavris, who chairs Newton’s Community Design For Arts and Culture Committee, called Ms. Plaut “lovely, elegant, and gracious. And Newton Community Pride president Howard Sholkin said she was “the Pied Piper of volunteers” whose office was “a greenhouse for culture and the arts.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ms. Plaut played stickball in her neighborhood as a youngster with her older brother, Mike, and his best friend, Sandy Koufax, who would go on to a Hall of Fame baseball career.

Linda Ruth Plaut was the daughter of Abraham Fields, who worked in the hat business, and the former Beatrice Epstein. Ms. Plaut graduated from Lafayette High School and Brooklyn College, and received a master’s from the University of Wisconsin.

She taught history at White Plains High School and married Dr. Andrew Plaut in 1965. Although the marriage ended in divorce, they reconnected in friendship later in life.

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With her husband, she had resided in Bangkok, where she taught English as a second language, and also lived in Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to Newton.

She also was a flutist but gave up her lessons at the All Newton Music School to concentrate on her job as founding director of Newton’s Arts in the Parks program.

Ms. Plaut had been associate commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission during the administration of Massachusetts Governor Edward King. And she started a “1 percent for art” program mandating that 1 percent of construction costs at MDC buildings be allotted for art work.

“Ted Mann and Linda were a formidable team,” said Newton Parks and Recreation manager Carol Stapleton, who worked with Ms. Plaut on several projects, including Sunday night concerts in Newton Center. “With Linda, it was one idea after another. She taught us to be visionaries.”

Her collaboration with Mann included major projects such as the Fund for the Arts and a related Festival for the Arts in the early 1980s, which brought major donations from the business community and featured celebrities including violinist and conductor Joseph Silverstein.

“I had great admiration for Linda’s enthusiasm and encouraging others,” said Newton City Council president emeritus Lisle Baker, who worked closely with her on those efforts. “She was always reaching out.”

The Heartbreak Hill International Youth Race, now in its 27th year, has included runners from Ome, Japan. Student-athletes from Newton South and Newton North high schools have traditionally volunteered at the starting line and checkpoints.

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“Linda was the driving force,” said Steve McChesney, a track coach at Newton South High and longtime volunteer. “She had a knack for getting things done — with pride and passion — while making people around her feel important, including our kids from the high school.”

Ms. Plaut, who twice had a day designated in her honor in Newton (1988 and 2017), worked on fund-raising and enjoyed her pursuits, including reading a book on the Yalta Conference and watching TV talk show host and political commentator Rachel Maddow the day before she died.

“Her desk could be covered with papers about a major event,” said Paula Gannon, associate director of the Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs. “However, when her eyes met yours she was present in the moment with you and you would feed off her energy.”

The Newton Festival of the Arts will be renamed in Ms. Plaut’s honor, and there are tentative plans for a public celebration of her life to be held this spring. In addition, a condolence journal displayed outside the Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs included 56 memories to be shared with her family.

A service has been held for Ms. Plaut who leaves a daughter, Julie Plaut Mahoney of Newton; a son, Jonathan of Boston; three brothers, Edward of Old Bridge, N.J., Mike of Rock Island, Ill., and Richard of New York City; and two grandchildren.

“She was completely inclusive,” Jonathan Plaut said. “There was always room at the table on any celebration for any guest. And she never sought praise or public recognition. She was grateful to have such a meaningful job and that each mayor valued her presence.”

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Julie Plaut Mahoney said in a eulogy that “as a civil servant, she was most activated by meeting a family new to town, with little or no family, trying to build a life for themselves.”

In May 2017, before an audience at the Newton Nomadic Theater, Ms. Plaut summed up the essence of her public service.

“You have to get off the stoop,” she said, “and open up your heart.”


Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.