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Walda Barnett Besthoff '54 and Sydney J. Besthoff III '45,
Mark J. Plotkin '73


Walda Barnett Besthoff '54 and Sydney J. Besthoff III '45 have had a profound impact on the economy and culture of their hometown, New Orleans. Mark J. Plotkin '73 has spent his career protecting the culture and resources of the Amazon rain forests. Isidore Newman School honored these three graduates with Distinguished Alumni Awards at a reception on May 7.

The Besthoff family is woven into the history of New Orleans like few others, thanks to a chain of beloved drug stores and their familiar purple signs. The family sold K&B, originally known as Katz & Besthoff, in 1997, after 92 years in business. Today, the family runs a real estate company.

The Besthoffs are now best known for their significant contribution to the New Orleans Museum of Art. The popular Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, opened in 2003, contains more than 40 sculptures donated by the Besthoffs.

Sydney is also one of the founders of the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, a director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and founder and director of the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Foundation, a private organization dedicated to cultivating public interest in the arts. Walda has been very active in the arts community as well, and she performed at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre until the mid-1960s.

Just as they have long been a part of New Orleans, the Besthoffs have been an important part of Newman for many generations. In fact, Sydney's great-great uncle was the School’s founder, Isidore Newman. The name of the Besthoffs' foundation graces the entrance to the pre-k and kindergarten building.

Sydney and Walda have three daughters who graduated from Newman: Virginia Besthoff '75, Valerie Besthoff Marcus '78 and Jane Besthoff Steiner '80. Five of their seven grandchildren attend the School.

Mark J. Plotkin '73 has spent more than 20 years in the rain forests and jungles of Central and South America, his eyes and ears open to the ancient healing secrets of the shamans. An ethnobotanist, author, explorer, activist, humanitarian and even a "Hero for the Planet," according to Time magazine, Mark is dedicated to saving and protecting the rain forest.

In 2005, Smithsonian magazine named Mark one of the "35 Who Made a Difference." He was in good company: Maya Angelou, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg and Wynton Marsalis were among the honorees. In 2004, the Roy Chapman Andrews Society honored him as a "Distinguished Explorer," noting that using "an exemplary blend of science and humanism," he had sparked a "renewed local commitment to the ancient tradition of shamanism." This helps not only the native communities of the Amazon, but also benefits us all, as their ancient arts and knowledge of plants could provide cures to common illnesses.

A spellbinding storyteller, Mark’s book, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, is in its nineteenth printing. He helped produce the award-winning 2001 documentary, "The Shaman’s Apprentice," narrated by Susan Sarandon. His 2002 book, The Killers Within, warns that bacteria are evolving and becoming resistant to all available drugs. He received the 1994 San Diego Zoo Gold Medal for Conservation, one of the top awards for environmentalists. He has been featured in numerous news reports on television, radio and in print. And his IMAX screen film, "Amazon," was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Documentary.

Mark is president of the Amazon Conservation Team, an environmental organization working in true partnership with indigenous peoples to help them protect their rainforests and their culture. When not trekking through the jungle, Mark lives in Virginia with his wife Liliana Madrigal and his two daughters. Mark is the son of beloved Newman teacher, Helene T. Plotkin.

Walda and Sydney are the 2006-2007 Distinguished Alumni. Mark is the 2005-2006 Distinguished Alumnus.