Meet a Member: Helen Sheffield Plotkin

Helen Sheffield Plotkin is the 2017 Communicator of Achievement for Arkansas Press Women. She is an active member of the affiliate where she has served in many capacities during her professional career. She is currently serving as the affiliate contest director in a affiliate known for high quality entrants. This year’s national sweepstakes award winner was from Arkansas. Plotkin is a dedicated NFPW member and a great asset to our organization. I hope you enjoy getting to know her a little better.

Name: Helen Sheffield Plotkin

 City and State: Conway, Arkansas

Affiliate and any leadership positions:

Arkansas Press Women – I’ve served APW as president, first vice president, secretary, high school contest director, scholarship chair, conference organizer and, this year, I’m chairing the professional contest. I joined APW in 1977. Charlotte Schexnayder, who was NFPW president, spoke at the first APW meeting I attended. I was honored to be asked to join the state board as Southwest District Director in 1978; I found out later that there were few members in the southwest corner of the state and that they’d already asked everyone else who qualified for the position and been turned down. I’m still glad they asked me because that opportunity introduced me to the APW leadership and helped form personal relationships that continue to be important to me 40 years later. That early involvement also prompted me to seek out membership in Louisiana when I moved there in 1979. I was an active member of Louisiana  Press Women for the next decade, serving on the board, helping plan a state conference, and serving as contest chair in the days before you needed to be computer literate to enter. I resumed membership in Arkansas Press Women when I moved back to my home state in 1989.

Helen Plotkin with her niece Amy and holding her grand-niece, Jemma. Photo is from last spring when Jemma was about four months old.

Helen Plotkin with her niece Amy and grand-niece, Jemma. Photo is from last spring when Jemma was about four months old.

Tell us a little about you.

I grew up in Mount Ida, Arkansas, population 897 for most of the time I lived there. My mother, father, sister and brother lived on a farm along the South Fork of the Ouachita River.

 We were poor, but didn’t know it because we didn’t know anyone who wasn’t in the same shape. When my grandparents, and then my parents bought televisions, I got my first glimpse of the outside world and realized that other people lived differently. I was seven when the television arrived and when the wood cookstove was replaced with a gas range; I was 14 when we got running water.

 I graduated from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, with bachelor of arts in journalism and spent the next 13 years working at newspapers in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana – mostly as a feature writer, editor and columnist. I also worked the news desk, covered city hall, county government, the local school board, police, fire and such, and anything else the editors I worked for needed done.

 In 1989, my husband (a Chicago native who was a copy editor at the Monroe, Louisiana, newspaper when I joined the staff) accepted a job of the Arkansas Gazette and we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, about 100 miles from where I grew up. A couple of months after we moved, I started work in the Public Information Office at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, my first step toward a career in public relations. I spent five years at UALR, learning from a group of talented co-workers and leaving in 1995 as Managing Editor (and interim director) of the Office of Communications. I went to Hendrix College in Conway Arkansas as Director of College Relations for the small liberal arts college that is widely regarded as among 100 best liberal arts colleges in the nation. When I retired in May 2017, I’d been at Hendrix for 22 years, the last two as Vice President for Marketing Communications and a member of the Senior Leadership Team and the President’s Cabinet.

 I’ve been married to Richard Plotkin (also an APW/NFPW member) for 36 years, as of Nov. 15, 2017. We haven’t any offspring, but my late sister was kind enough to have a daughter and son, who have both provided grand nephews and – as of December 2016 – one grand-niece whose arrival is one of the reasons I decided to retire and give myself more time to spoil her rotten.

 Any career advice you would give?

When I told my Hendrix team that was retiring, I was asked to share some parting words of wisdom with the group at one of our monthly “Brown Bag Lunches,” a short professional development time that we all took turns leading. I put together a list I titled 22 True Things, one for each year I worked at Hendrix. After I left, the new Vice President for Marketing Communications had my list framed and hung on the wall (mainly to embarrass me, I think). Here are a few of the items that would fall in the career advice category:

  1. Ask, don’t assume. What you think you already know can get in your way.
  2. Remember that someone else’s idea could be better than yours and you’ll never know that if you don’t pause and listen.
  3. How you respond to setbacks and failure will determine the course of your career.
  4. Don’t be shy about claiming credit when you’ve excelled at something. Also, don’t be shy about sharing the credit. We do very little of value all alone.
  5. While earning the approval and respect of others is valuable and affirming, you are the only person whose approval or respect you require to be a person of integrity.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Since I love music, it would nice if had some talent in that area. My late sister often commented, when we sang duets together in church as teenagers, that the issue wasn’t so much my lack of talent as it was my lack of willingness to practice enough to compensate for it – and my inability to grasp that when we were singing a duet it was actually important that we sing in the same key. I miss my sister every day, but I’ve yet to miss that sharp elbow of hers that landed in my side every time I was flat!

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

The ideal place would require a little reorganization of the continent. If no one objects, I would create a cozy little cottage on a few acres of the old family farm in Mount Ida. Then I’d replace the South Fork of the Ouachita River that borders the property with the Pacific Ocean, so I could watch the sunset every night and fall asleep to the sound of the surf. I can’t decide between plopping my little paradise down near Monterey or placing it along the coast of Oregon, where some of my favorite relatives live. Those details can be worked out after I get the cottage built, I’m sure.

What book are you reading?

I usually have several going at the same time. I just started Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly, a Harry Borsch crime novel.

And, I’ve been dipping periodically into Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg, which I purchased at the NFPW meeting in Birmingham and am thoroughly enjoying, and Atlas Obscura, a collection of stories about just plain odd places around the globe.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I’ve been employed as a professional chicken catcher – along with the other members of my high school class. It’s what we did to raise money for our junior banquet and senior trip. It was both hard work and fun, in a weird sort of way. But, I wouldn’t recommend it as a long-term career.

Why are organizations like NFPW important?

Organizations like NFPW connect us with others who share our professional passion. Friendships develop that enrich our lives on a number of levels. NFPW and its state affiliates provide professional development workshops and opportunities to develop leadership skills, and create networks of fellow communicators we can call on when we encounter challenges at work or when we are searching for work.

Way to follow you on a website, twitter, Facebook, etc.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/helen-plotkin-7b7813b/ – My Linked In page, although there’s not much on it. And, that’s about the same for my Facebook page.

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