Poetic Justice | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Poetic Justice 

Sterling Plumpp beats the odds.

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Sterling Plumpp, poet and professor, is sitting in a room halfway up the not-quite-ivory tower of University Hall on the campus of UIC, a million-dollar grin playing across his face. After 30 years in the departments of English and African-American studies, Plumpp, 61, will retire at the end of this semester. But that's not why he's grinning.

On the morning of August 13, following his usual routine, Plumpp walked four blocks from his apartment to the liquor store at the corner of Austin and Chicago to buy a newspaper and some lottery tickets. He's been playing the same numbers since the state started selling lottery tickets in 1974. Plumpp says what attracts him are the impossible odds: "Someone has told me these are the odds against you, and I want to prove the game wrong."

He usually plays the Lotto or the Big Game, putting all his money on a single number, but that day he bought $20 worth of Vegas Instant Game tickets. When he got home he scratched the tickets and won $15. He went back a second time and won $25 more. Feeling lucky, he walked to the liquor store a third time, bought two more tickets, and returned home. He scratched the prize square under "Beat the Dealer" first: $1,000,000. Then he scratched the dealer's square.

"A deuce. And I said, 'Oh my God.' I had a six."

At first, he says, he didn't believe it. He went back and read the fine print, then read it again. "You feel that you have to harness your enthusiasm so that the joy you have might not be false joy," he says. "You just can't win a million dollars this easy." Not until August 26, when he heard from the lottery's claims office in Springfield that a check had been vouchered and would arrive at his bank no later than September 10, did he allow himself to believe that he'd really won.

"The only word that can describe how I feel is blessed," he says, looking east from his concrete perch over the city. "Of all the millions of people, it's you. I'm gonna have to contact NASA just to keep from levitating."

In his faded blue oxford shirt and scuffed loafers, Plumpp is scrappy in a professorial way, but there's nothing tweedy about him. His voice moves with the cadences of the blues that have been a resource for his poetry, and many of his sentences are built around the word "will." He's a humble man, and though he's rich now he has no interest in acquiring a flashy lifestyle. "I will continue to live modestly," he says, "no matter how much money I have."

So what does a poet do with a million dollars?

This poet says he doesn't know anything about money after a lifetime of not having much, but he plans on investing 90 percent of it. He's thinking of replacing his '78 Cadillac with a new BMW, and he's considering buying a loft in the South Loop so he can be close to his favorite jazz and blues clubs. But his big concerns prior to winning the lottery were how to leave something for his 25-year-old daughter and how to pay for the traveling he wants to do. With the $695,000 he got after taxes, those concerns are a thing of the past.

Plumpp grew up on a cotton plantation just outside of Clinton, Mississippi, working in the fields with his sharecropper grandparents until he was 15. He read a lot as a kid, but had no formal education until he moved to Jackson with his grandmother after his grandfather died in 1955. He spent two years at Saint Benedict's College in Atchison, Kansas, then came to Chicago in 1962 to study psychology at Roosevelt University, working part-time at the central post office, at Canal and Van Buren.

Plumpp first got interested in writing after reading Keats and Dante at Saint Benedict's, but says it was only when he read James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" in 1961 that he realized that everyday black life could be a subject of literature. "I knew then that I wanted to be a writer, and I began this whole process of reading books and reading about the lives of authors, trying to apprentice myself into the mind-set that would lead to my becoming a writer." Throughout his career, he says, he has tried to show that some of the best American culture came from the lives of simple African-Americans. "Whether it be Negro spirituals, whether it be blues, jazz, or gospel. These individuals, handcuffed legally and handicapped by social attitudes, could still swim against the tide and win victories."

In 1971, Plumpp, then 31 and doing graduate work in psychology at Roosevelt, was offered a job in the English department at UIC on the recommendation of his friend and fellow poet Haki Madhubuti (known then as Don Lee), who was leaving UIC for a job at Howard University. In the years since, he's published 12 books and won several teaching awards, as well as the 1983 Carl Sandburg prize for his poem "The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go."

Over the next four or five years Plumpp plans to travel to West Africa, India, and China. He wants to travel the U.S. to see as many blues festivals and venues as he can, and in the next year he'll spend some time in his home state, working on a poem based on the legend of his earliest known relative, a North Carolina slave who is said to have walked to Mississippi behind an oxcart.

Even now that he's won, Plumpp says, he'll continue to play the lottery. And if the pot's big enough, he might gamble more now that he's playing with house money. "If the Powerball goes up to $4 million, I might feel lucky and play $1,000," he says. "The fascination of possibly hitting, of really beating this lottery game, that would probably mean as much to me as the money. I think I play because I really believe that somebody can beat the odds."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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