Jesuit Father Donald J. Plocke died on March 5, 2016, at Campion Center in Weston, Massachusetts.
Fr. Plocke was born on May 5, 1929, in Ansonia, a small town northwest of New Haven, Connecticut, where his grandfather had been one of the founders of the Lithuanian parish. Fr. Plocke was the first child of Joseph and Stella (Loda) Plocke. A sister, Joyce, was four years younger. His father worked as a machinist for a manufacturer of heavy machinery. His mother was an accomplished amateur photographer. Fr. Plocke grew up there, attended local Catholic schools through the 9th grade, and was a Mass server from early childhood. During his high school years, at Ansonia’s public school, he developed a strong interest in physics and won a college scholarship funded by an Ansonia industrialist for a local graduate. He entered Yale in 1946.
At Yale two experiences shaped his future. He got a work-study job in the lab of one of the pioneers in the field of biophysics. And one day, thinking about whether he should go on to graduate school, he quite unexpectedly found himself asking, “What if you should become a priest?” Conversations with the only Jesuit he knew, a graduate student in education from the Philippines, led him to apply to the New England Province, and he entered the Shadowbrook novitiate the year he graduated from Yale, 1950.
After first vows and a year of juniorate, he spent three years in philosophy studies at Weston. Then the decision was made that he should pursue a doctoral degree in biophysics. M.I.T. accepted him and once again he found an influential mentor, at one of the top Boston hospitals, to guide his studies. He spent the next five years (1956-1961) living in the largely graduate-student community on Newbury St. in Boston’s Back Bay and walking back and forth across the Charles River to his work at M.I.T. or across Kenmore Square to the Brigham.
Degree in hand, he returned to Weston for theology studies. He was ordained a priest at Weston in 1964 and, a year later, requested to do tertianship at Muenster, Germany, which had the plus of enabling him to spend time at the end of that year in the lab of a Nobel Prize winner in biophysics at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen.
In 1966 he began his long association with Boston College as an assistant professor in the biology department. He began teaching undergraduates and supervising master’s and doctoral students, established his lab, won grants for his research in molecular biology from the American Cancer Society, and produced a string of publications. He also taught courses at Harvard Medical School. In the 19079s he served for nine years as chairman of the department, which he found stressful, as the department was seriously divided as to what its focus should be. His research suffered during his tenure as chair but a sabbatical divided between Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and a research center in Zurich enabled him to re-focus his work and complete a project in an unfamiliar area of molecular biology that had captured his interest, resulting in another flurry of publications.
In his later years he acknowledged that he found his greatest joy in teaching and advising his students. For B.C.’s Capstone Program — an array of courses for seniors that encourage them to connect what they have learned in their undergraduate years with their plans for the future — he developed a course about the relationship between religion and science, with the aid of a grant from the Templeton Foundation. He spent a sabbatical at Oxford working on this topic and taught the course through the last years of his working life.
In 2011, a diagnosis of cancer led to his being assigned to Campion Center. Increasingly limited physically and confined to a wheelchair, he was typically found at his laptop, praying or pursuing his interests in science and religion. In late February 2016 a series of hospitalizations led to his declining further treatment and he died peacefully during the evening of March 5, 2016.