The Legacy of Dr. Plagman

The seniors, who will be the last class to know Ralph Plagman as Wash principal, talk to parents, teachers, and alumni to reflect on his legacy.


Photo Courtesy of Impact Photography

Ralph Plagman speaks at the 2016 commencement ceremony, which was his final commencement as principal after 35 years.

Ben Janssen, Editor-in-Chief

As Graduation looms ever closer, and as the seniors prepare to walk across the stage on May 25, there will be one man who is notably absent.

Dr. Ralph Plagman served as Wash’s principal for 35 years until he resigned following the 2016 school year amidst an infamous scandal. The last class he oversaw is now preparing to finish high school and we want to revisit the legacy of this man.

In his letter of resignation, Plagman says he was asked to resign by district officials as a result of the sexual relationship between a substitute teacher, Mary Beth Haglin, and a 17-year-old student. Former district spokeswoman, Marcia Hughes, told The Gazette, “The statement represents Dr. Plagman’s perception of events and is not an official District statement. …Since the District’s investigation into this matter has not concluded, the district will not substantively comment on Dr. Plagman’s statement.”

Plagman investigated Haglin’s conduct when it was first brought to his attention with another administrator. This investigation lasted one day. It wasn’t until a few months later that Plagman brought this to the attention of the district when a video of Haglin and the student was posted on a social media network.

Despite this, Plagman retired after serving the district for 49 years and as Washington’s Principal since the 1981-82 school year. “I love Washington High School, where I have been principal for 35 years and one month, and all of the thousands of students, staff members, and parents whom I have been blessed to know and serve over all of those years. It has been tremendous honor and joy! I also have wonderful memories of my earlier years at Kennedy High School and Metro High School. In my retirement I will continue to be the #1 fan of the Washington Warriors!” Plagman wrote in his letter of resignation.

Since his resignation, Plagman’s name has seemingly become taboo, rarely spoken throughout the halls, and if his name is brought up, it’s followed by silence. This is because, despite a large support from the seniors and students he taught, there is a lot of controversy still surrounding his name. The question must be asked, does he deserve this?

Following his retirement, current and former students were outraged. So much so a rally was held at Washington, with attendees chanting and holding signs supporting their former principal. Izzie Wilcox, ’19, had just completed her freshman year when Plagman retired. She attended the rally with her brother and father, both Wash grads. “We just wanted to try and express to people outside of the Wash community what DP (a nickname given to Plagman) meant to us. It was a very cool experience because people from all areas of Wash came together to share our admiration for Dr. Plagman,” Wilcox, ’19, said.

A community member holds a sign in support of Dr. Plagman at the rally on Aug. 3, 2016, one day after his resignation. Photo by Kyle Phillips

Plagman was beloved by his students due to the attention and care he had for them. “DP knew every single student’s name and what they were involved in. He would go out of his way to speak to students about the different activities they were doing and personally congratulate them for different accomplishments. He never played favorites, and made even the smallest clubs feel valuable and a part of the Warrior community,” Wilcox  said.

Plagman was always remembered by his students even years after their graduation. Tom Wilcox, a 1992 Wash grad, stood outside the school while supporting his son and daughter who were rallying. “I pictured his last year as a series of applause and celebration, a victory lap,” Tom told The Gazette.

After Plagman’s departure, the school was left hurt and confused. The principal who represented Washington for so many years would no longer be there. “I know people fault him for many things and I know that like every human he had his issues, but all in all, I would not come out and say that he was a bad leader for this school. I think he did a lot for Washington High School and his departure damaged the spirit of Washington, not him personally, but that he was let go. We miss him,” Sarah Swayze, a Wash special education teacher, said. “It’s become a struggle for senior students to adapt. You’re stuck at this thing that you’re happy to be graduating and your stuck knowing that this man isn’t going to be leading your graduation.”

It was tough for students and teachers move on and try to let go of the past. “I was very angry and bitter. Once the realization hit, yeah he’s not going to be here, I realized that we all need to step up. He can’t be replaced by anybody, a single person at all. We all need to lift our game up to keep this train moving along,” Robert Throndson, a Wash math teacher and parent of two Wash students, said.

Plagman was a man with a vision for this school. He knew what he wanted the school to look like and be known for, so everything he did was to promote his vision and make this school ideal for every student. Plagman worked towards his vision by promoting Advanced Placement (AP) testing and advanced courses. He made every student feel welcome and important, without any bias. “The thing that I’m discovering I liked most about him, was that he had a really clear vision of what he thought our school was about, and everything he did was intended to support that vision,” Adam Witte, Wash English department chair, said.

Plagman cannot be mentioned without talking about his support and the relentless push he had towards AP testing. Washington has sat atop the AP index for so long largely due to the determination Plagman had to get every student to participate in difficult classes. Plagman would show a massive thermometer on the announcements everyday and fill it up as more people signed up for AP tests. He would speak directly to the students, urging individuals to sign up for more tests. Plagman also would provide numerous incentives for students. Plagman made AP testing part of the Washington culture. “Dr. Plagman had a vision for what our school needed to be, and part of that vision was we need to keep the kids at the top. We need to keep the top high achieving students, who honestly have a choice of where to go to school, to keep them here, we need to serve them better than the other schools that they could choose to go to. So his push for AP was part of a bigger plan on keeping kids here who had a choice, keeping families here who had a choice,” Throndson said.

A common sight for young freshman in their first days of high school was Plagman walking into random classes and taking a seat at a desk. Then as if it were planned for weeks, the teacher would hand him a seating chart. Plagman would then sit in the class studying the seating chart, memorizing names and connecting those names to faces. He would then return the seating chart and venture off.

Plagman legitimately cared about every student that stepped into his school so much that he’d work hard to memorize every single student’s name and what activities they are involved in so they’d feel welcome at Wash. “He cared for every single person. He used to come into my room at the beginning of the year, because we have large freshman classes, and ask me for a seating chart and he’d sit in the back of the class room and memorize names. Then when he was out in the hallway he’d genuinely say to somebody ‘Hello Sally! Nice job in the soccer game last night, and good luck in the concert tonight’ so he just had a very caring heart and it was genuine,” Peter Westphalen, ’86, and current Wash choir director, said.

DP loved to recognize even the smallest accomplishments. What made it so special was how proud he was of his students. Whenever someone did something that he thought deserved recognition, he did so with genuine pride. “I think that he was incredibly highly respected by staff. I knew that his expectations of the choir department were extremely high, however his support was so great that you wanted to please him, and when you did something that represented Washington in a great way. I’m talking anything- I’m talking IJAG, I’m talking choir, band, athletics, student senate. Anybody did something, he was excellent at recognizing their efforts, so he instilled a huge sense of pride in being a Washington Warrior,” Westphalen said.

Even after his retirement, Plagman still recognizes and congratulates Warriors successes as much as possible. “DP knew everybody’s kids, he knew every kid here, what they were active in, he talked to them whenever he saw them, whether it was in school or out of school. And even after he left he knew what my kids were involved in, and when somebody would be in the paper for something good he would make sure to let us know,” Throndson said.

Plagman helped push the students at Wash to achieve their potential, especially students of color. In January 2016, Washington was one of four schools in Iowa to be honored with the Breaking Barriers Award for African-American students. This award was given by the State of Iowa. Wash was honored based on statistics from the past three years, during that time period.

54% of African-American students statewide were proficient in reading and math, while 74% of African-American students at Wash were proficient in these same subjects. Washington was the first high school to win this award and as of 2018 is one of just two high schools to have been awarded this for African-American achievement. “He prioritized making sure cultural diversity, especially embracing our racial diversity, was not a problem to be solved, it was a priority to be embraced, it was our greatest strength, and so I knew who we were and I valued that,” Witte said.

CDO, an annual cultural diversity workshop, is an event that highlights the cultural differences of students at the school. Although there are many people that have helped make this into a major part of the Wash school year, Plagman did a lot to help this activity grow. “He pushed for [CDO], he fought that, even when the district was trying to get rid of it, he fought for that. The district did not what that to continue, Dr Plagman fought for many years to keep that going. It is because of him that that has stayed here as long as it has, because he fought for it, he saw it as an important part of representing every student that was in this building,” Swayze said.

Another group that Plagman supported was the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance). Although he is not the only person to thank for this group he, helped support it in the early stages so it could become a beneficial group for the school. “The gay straight alliance, he made sure that that was here, that it was supported. He made sure that every student had a place to belong. He was considerate, a very considerate man,” Swayze said.

Plagman wanted every member of the Wash community to feel like they were a part of something and that they were supported. He did this by attending everything, Plagman had a superhuman ability to seemingly be at two places at once. He went above and beyond what was asked of him to make sure everyone was welcome. “Having him at every game just told the kids how important they were and every music thing and just everything, he was everywhere all the time. Insane. Since he’s left, I’ve tried to go to as many things as I possibly can, I don’t know how he did it. I can’t keep that schedule, going here, going there. There are multiple activities every night he would make sure he was at,” Throndson said.

A part of Plagman’s personality that drew the staff and students towards him was how easy he was to talk to about any issue you may have. If someone wanted to talk to Plagman then he would make time and he would never forget a meeting. “This is what amazed me about Dr. Plagman, he attended everything, but yet always had time for everyone, and never made you feel rushed when you were meeting with him,” Westphalen said.

Plagman  was a person that drew respect and admiration from almost everyone that interacted with him because he was a person that genuinely love this school and every person inside of it. “I love the man, I don’t always agree with him, we would often have discussions where it would be like ‘I’m not sure we’re doing this right’, but he would always tell me why he felt he was doing it correctly and it would always be in the best interest of the kids. Always in the best interest of the kids,” Throndson said.

Without Plagman, Washington High School would be drastically different. Plagman made Washington a school that is respected and revered, he led this school to becoming one of the best in the state and country. “He put us on the map, we can very easily be an urban high school. He put us on the map. When you say you work at Washington High School people say, ‘oh wow’, or when I say my kids graduated from Washington High School, ‘wow’,” Throndson said.

Although Plagman no longer comes to Wash everyday his legacy lives on. His spirit lives inside every student that had the privilege of learning under him, and for those who never studied under him. The teachers he hired will continue to preach his beliefs and ideas while promoting the growth of the school as it becomes something better than even Plagman could’ve hoped for.

“That’s part of what continues to live on. All these people that he brought together, this cohort of teachers, and it’s not like Doc Jones teaches the same way as Mr. Kleman who teaches the same way as Mr. Scherrman, those are really different people but they’re all excellent and when you’re surrounded by people that are excellent, you want to be excellent. So I think that’s part of where his spirit lives on, is just because this is the house that Ralph built, and we continue to live in it,” Witte said.

There may be a day in the distant future that Plagman’s name holds no real meaning at this school, one thing will remain constant, “It’s a great day to be a Warrior!” -Dr. Ralph Plagman.

Additional reporting by Abby Throndson, Jaydin McMickle and Jared Barger.