Shortly before her untimely death from cancer at age 39, the late Dr. Joanna Ploeger ’89 (at left) of Berkeley, Calif., was focused on two major life events. A professor of rhetoric and communication at California State University (Stanislaus), Ploeger was pregnant with her first child and also wrapping up the final touches on her first book. Her son, Thomas, was born June 8, 2006, and sadly, Ploeger died a month later, leaving behind her baby boy and the book she had worked on for more than seven years.
Her book’s focus was the study of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., known as Fermilab for short (at right). Ploeger’s manuscript, “The Boundaries of the New Frontier: Rhetoric and Communication at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory,” specifically assessed the communication practices within the high-energy physics lab and how they might impact the scientific outcomes of the institution. Reflective of her expertise in the field of communications, the book is written in an engaging style that invites comparisons to a good novel on the bestseller list. In all likelihood, her book would have remained unpublished if not for her former colleagues at the University of Iowa, where she had worked for seven years prior to accepting the tenure-track position at CSU. David Depew, professor emeritus and Ploeger’s colleague at the University of Iowa, led the efforts to complete the book as a lasting legacy to his late friend, completing the bibliography and footnotes – all that remained to finish the book.
Published in 2009, the book was praised by Catherine Westfall of Project MUSE, a humanities and social science journal, as a “a must-read for all those interested in exploring a new view of the social and political interplay that drives the development of expensive government-funded science and technology.” “Above all, the book is offered in the name of Joanna’s students,” said Depew in the book’s foreword. “Undergraduates and graduate students alike appreciated the clarity and vigor of her teaching style as well as her fierce support of their individual aspirations.”
“When David called to tell me what they were going to do, I was elated,” says Ploeger’s mother, Betty Farley Ploeger, a 1951 Millikin graduate. “I felt this was the greatest tribute they could have given her.” According to Betty, Joanna had traveled extensively to other national physics labs to conduct research in the process of writing the book, all while teaching full time. Betty was very disheartened when it appeared that her daughter’s hard work would result in an unfinished manuscript and never see publication. “Joanna didn’t want to talk about the book when she was in the hospital toward the end,” Betty says. “It was so close to being done, and she was too ill to finish it.” Instead, the two talked about her students and how proud Joanna was of the work they were doing. “Four of her students actually worked with the faculty to help finish the book,” Betty says.
A communications major at Millikin, Joanna was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority and received the outstanding communication student award before graduating. After graduation, she completed her master’s degree at Illinois State University and her doctorate at University of Georgia.
Deb Hale Kirchner is senior director of communications for the Alumni and Development Office and editor of Millikin Quarterly magazine.