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Philanthropy, a Plambeck family affair

"We cannot take institutions like Carolina and the law school for granted."

Charles and Sue Plambeck
Photo by Raines Plambeck

"We cannot take institutions like Carolina and the law school for granted."

Charles and Sue Plambeck have bequeathed and pledged $1 million to support the UNC School of Law, UNC College of Arts & Sciences, the Center for the Study of the American South, the American Indian Center and Wilson Library Special Collections. Their largely unrestricted gift enables University leaders to direct dollars where they’re needed most, with special funds set aside for a scholarship at the law school.

Improbable meetings, inspired gifts

When Charles Plambeck ’83, ’86 (J.D.) came to Carolina — first as an undergraduate, later as a law student there were two people he would meet by chance who would become lifelong collaborators.

The first was his future wife, Suzanne “Sue” Scott ’85, a fellow Carolina student-athlete.

The other was his second cousin, Joni Walser ’82, ’86 (J.D.), a fellow law student.

Charles and Sue still recall the first time they saw each other at the athletic training table. Thirty-five years and three children later, the rest, as they say, is history.

Charles and Joni found themselves in the same small section their first year of law school, unaware they were related until a chance discovery that their grandfathers had been brothers. They bonded as friends and family, fell into the same narrow law specialty and went on to work together in government, then private law.

Now, Charles, Sue and Joni partner in philanthropy.

Giving and goosebumps

Together, in 2019, Charles and Sue, Joni and her husband, Andy Church, established the Raymond C. and J. Thurman Walser Family Scholarship Fund, named in honor of Charles and Joni’s grandfathers.

With the scholarship, the families hope to support UNC School of Law students who are the first in their families to attend college or law school. To support first-generation students might have been particularly meaningful to scholarship namesakes Raymond and Thurman Walser, whose hard childhoods toiling on their family farm in Davidson County set the foundation for their descendants to seek higher education and launch into the world.

“When Joni called me with the concept, I got goosebumps,” said Charles. “Could our grandfathers ever have imagined 100 years ago that they would have a law scholarship named for them at the flagship university of the state?”

L-R Brothers Raymond, Roebuck and Thurman Walser. Charles and Sue Plambeck and Joni Walser established the Raymond C. and J. Thurman Walser Family Scholarship Fund in honor of Charles and Joni’s grandfathers.

In addition, Charles and Sue established the Plambeck Family Excellence Endowment Fund to offer unrestricted support to the law school dean’s highest priorities.

“This gift was a chance to really make a difference,” said Charles. “Carolina Law has a critical role in the economic and social welfare of North Carolina, and it’s at a fragile juncture. The school can no longer depend primarily upon state funding.”

“We cannot take institutions like Carolina and the law school for granted. Unless we step up, we risk losing them.”

Changing the trajectory

Charles and Sue think deeply about the power of giving back across campus. They saw For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina as an opportunity to reflect on their life experiences and to sharpen their thinking about how to make a positive impact on future generations.  They asked themselves, “What do we believe in? How will we be remembered?”

They know the importance of unrestricted gifts and the freedom those dollars give university leaders to make critical choices and act fast.

“Leadership’s hands are tied if you restrict gifts too closely,” said Sue, “and who knows better than they do where funds are needed?”

They also know that gifts of all sizes can make a big difference for smaller units and centers on campus. That’s what inspired their $5,000 pledge to the UNC American Indian Center.

“One of my law school classmates is Cherokee Indian. At a reunion he described a negative spiral. Fewer and fewer Native American students were coming to UNC-Chapel Hill, leaving fewer mentors and role models on campus, which in turn discourages Native American students to apply and so on.”

“A little bit of money can change the whole trajectory.”

Gifts of any size can reverse these vicious cycles.

“The talent is there, it just needs to be ignited.  If we could make Carolina more affordable in a little way — even just paying for books — then it might encourage more Native American students to come to Carolina and create those future role models,” continued Charles.

“A little bit of money can change the whole trajectory,” said Sue.

To be in a position to make a change for so many also encouraged the Plambecks to give unrestricted dollars to the College of Arts & Sciences, the Center for the Study of the American South and Wilson Library Special Collections.

“Arts and culture have the power to change our perspective about what is possible and to bring about a better world,” said Charles. “Together with history they help us understand ourselves and our past so we can see our present and chart our future.”

To imagine and build a better world

Charles and Sue are driven to create opportunities for the next generation of students because of the inspiration they draw from past generations, like Charles’ grandfather Raymond Walser.

It’s why, even when life gets busy, the Plambecks pause to remember what Carolina means to them. To recall life at 22 as scholar-athletes, juggling classes with track and swim practice; the camaraderie, the coaching of the “Carolina Way” — putting the team before self. To think about how, if they continue to put the team first and give back, what Carolina will mean to future Tar Heel lawyers and artists, leaders and humanitarians.

“The positive actions of each of us, however small, reverberate through generations. We, as recipients, often never know whom to thank,” said Charles. “We can really only pay for our good fortune through kindness to the next generation.”

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