‘He was that kind of a friend’

‘He was that kind of a friend’

For Bill Kaplen, giving was living and living meant giving

The Kaplen Pavilion is a state-of-the-art facility at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.

Wilson R. Kaplen of Tenafly, the big-hearted philanthropist known widely as Bill, who was at the heart of an extraordinary group of local givers, died at his home on Sunday. He was 95.

Bill and Maggie Kaplen’s names are all over the county, most prominently at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the Kaplen Pavilion at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, and the Jewish Home Family. But the Kaplens did not give money so they could see their names, in big letters, gracing the walls of buildings. They gave because they believed in giving, and because giving gave them joy.

Bill Kaplen was the real thing, and the circle that formed around him learned from him and each other. They were an unusual group, with an ethos that compelled them to give, not out of noblesse oblige or some sense of paternalism, but from deep and sober commitment, and an understanding that it is true that the more you give, the more you get, not in money but in wisdom and happiness.

Bill Kaplen was born in Weehawken in 1918, “where the Lincoln Tunnel is today,” he said in a 2004 interview with the Jewish Standard. He was the 12th of 14 children. His father was a builder. Kaplen went to Seton Hall University (he later established a scholarship there) and then to night law school at City College in Manhattan. When he graduated, he and a brother bought a grocery store in Bayonne for $50. (That princely sum covered both the store and its inventory.)

But then World War II began. The Kaplen brothers sold the store and enlisted in the U.S. Army, which took advantage of Bill’s experience by making him a clerk, first in the infantry and then in the Army Air Corps. “Soldiers were inventory,” he said. “If they needed 50,000 men in the infantry, everybody who came in at one time went to the infantry.”

He was sent to North Africa and then to Burma, through the Suez Canal, and into India. “The Japanese blew up a couple of ships in the bay outside Bombay,” he said. “There were dead bodies all over the place.”

The next bloody stop on his itinerary was Upper Assam, where the fighting was vicious. “Then, for morale purpose, they shipped about 20 people from the whole theater of operations to go back to school to study.” Among those 20 was Bill Kaplen.

He became a second lieutenant, and again he was a lawyer. He was discharged in 1946.

“When you look back at it, it’s like a dream,” he reported in 2004.

Kaplen went into business with his father, shelving his law dreams.

“I loved law,” he said. “It was my dream to be a lawyer – but you grow up, and you know that the world is a practical place. Sadly, sadly, people are measured more by how much they have than how good they are.”

Although he did not practice law for a living any more, he did not abandon it entirely, either. For 40 years, he did pro-bono arbitration and mediation for the American Arbitration Association.

Life became easier. He moved to Paterson and “paid 35 bucks a month for a nice-size apartment.” Soon his company expanded and his life grew increasingly comfortable. Eventually A. Kaplen & Son began to build speculatively, and then it developed a specialty in property management. It supported the family and gave its members large sums of money they could give away.

Bill Kaplen retired in 1998.

In 1963, Kaplen set up the Kaplen Foundation. Through it, the family donates money to such institutions as the Southern Poverty Law Center; New York City’s public radio station, WNYC, and the Roundabout Theatre Company. At home, they give money to the Tenafly JCC and EHMC; afield, they support foster children in Africa and Asia. This list is long, but it is not complete.

In 1997, Kaplen sold his share of the family business to the foundation, “so that way we could make more money,” he said. “Now we’re doing bigger things. We figure that’s what life’s about.”

According to its bylaws, the foundation must give at least 25 percent of its annual gift to Jewish causes.

“It isn’t important how much someone gives,” Kaplen said. “It’s more important that it comes from the heart. It’s not the quantity of the gift, but that you feel that the gift might slightly deprive you of something in life. It’s a unique sacrifice for you.

“But it shouldn’t deprive you of your way of life,” he continued. “It’s a balance.”

When his friends talk about him, some motifs recur. They all mention the simple pleasure he got from the act of giving, and they all mention the way his investment of time, expertise, and emotional commitment paralleled his financial investment. He gave his heart along with his checks.

Daniel Rubin of Englewood is the son of Leonard and Syril Rubin, like Kaplen charter members of the Bergen County philanthropic group. He knew Kaplen for 55 years.

“His death is an enormous loss,” Rubin said.

“What stands out most about Bill was his constant theme for many many years; that the greatest satisfaction he got in life was being able to give back. He said it gave him constant gratification and joy.

“He always used the metaphor of buying a new car; of how happy you are with it for the five minutes – and after that all you have is another used car. What you give, you always have something important.

“Bill was part of that generation that started with nothing and made something out of it,” he continued. “In terms of his personal needs and tastes, he was a very simple, humble guy.

“He was really just a wonderful person.”

Rubin remembered that when the Jewish Home Assisted Living facility in River Vale – the one now called the Kaplen Family Senior Residence – was built, “no one had to ask Bill for help. He just stepped forward and he and Maggie made the lead gift. And he wasn’t just involved in giving money. He was involved with the architectural plans. He was involved in the construction. I think that if he were younger he would have been pouring cement.

“He was a very smart man, who lived in this community for 80-some years,” Rubin continued. “He understood the things that were important to the community. Taking care of the elderly – the Jewish Home. Taking care of the ailing – Englewood Hospital. And then taking care of the cultural, social, and physical well-being of the community – the JCC.

“When the whole conception of really rebuilding the JCC to bring it into the 21st century came about, Bill looked at the plans, looked at the needs, and immediately recognized that it was something important. So he made the lead gift.

“You would never know any of these things by looking at him or speaking to him. He never flaunted it. He just knew how to do the right thing.

“Bill never gave money because he wanted any personal gain out of it,” Rubin concluded. “He was an old-time philanthropist. He gave because he felt it in his heart. He didn’t give foolishly, but he felt it in his heart first. Then, with his mind, he made sure it was the right thing to do. But first and foremost it came from his heart.”

Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood Cliffs, a former JCC president, said, “Bill was a personage. You don’t meet people like Bill very often. There are very few people who are as determined and talented and confident and caring as Bill.”

She paid tribute to his wife as well. “Maggie was a real partner,” she said. “He brought her own sensitivity and her humanism and caring to every project. She had been a nurse, and she understood a lot about human frailty, illness, and aging.

“Together, they were an enormous force for good.”

Avi Lewinson, the JCC’s executive director, said: “I really appreciated the personal relationship we had. Aside from the dollars – obviously he was a generous guy – I really loved him.

“He was a staunch supporter of the local community, both the Jewish community and the larger local community. He supported Englewood Hospital and also the Englewood Community Chest.

“One of the things he shared with me was that once he got older and set up the foundation and engaging in philanthropy, he didn’t feel that he was giving much away. He wasn’t giving anything away at all, he said. Instead, by giving money, you are multiplying what you have one hundred times over.

“If you keep it, what are you going to do with it? But if you give it away, it keeps giving.

“He was honored that he could live a life that allowed him to do that. He honestly felt that he got more from giving than people ever could realize.

“It is one thing to get money from people who are generous. It is another to feel that you are getting their support, their knowledge base, and their values. He really gave all of that, including his friendship.”

Lewinson remembers the time, a few years ago, when Kaplen grew very sick, and it appeared for a time that he was near death.

“I said to him that it was a close call, and he said that he had lived an amazing and wonderful life, and that he was married to Maggie, which was more than he deserved.

“In that sense, he had no fear of death. He wasn’t in a hurry to die – there were so many things he enjoyed – but when it would be time, he was at peace with that.”

Warren Geller is the president and CEO of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, where Bill Kaplen had been on the board of trustees for 25 years. Maggie Kaplen is on that board today.

“It is with a heavy heart that we talk about the passing of our great friend Bill Kaplen,” he said. “Bill and Maggie established an unparalleled legacy at the hospital and throughout our entire community. We will forever be indebted to them; their generosity has been nothing short of transformational.”

The Kaplen Pavilion is now “the premiere emergency care center in the country,” he said; its 40 private treatment rooms combine “the humanistic aspects of care along with expertise and technology.” Not only did the Kaplens make the lead gift toward the pavilion, “they also encouraged their friends and family to match their generosity.

“We’re so sad for Maggie,” he continued. “She cared for him and was by his side until the very end. It is a good love story.”

Jay Nadel was chair of EHMC’s board from 2006 to 2012. He worked closely with Kaplen, and emailed this anecdote:

“Bill took so much pride in helping our community that he insisted on touring me through the Jewish Home for Assisted Living in River Vale, which was then under construction. We drove there in my small car, and because there was another passenger, Bill volunteered to squeeze in to the very limited back seat area.

“I asked him if he was okay with that, and he replied, ‘I got through World War II okay, and this is much more comfortable than that.’

“‘I’ll be fine.’

“He had a great sense of humor.

“Later, EHMC was preparing to launch its Lifeline to Tomorrow campaign, which aimed to raise thirty million dollars for a new emergency department. Bill expressed interest in the project, so I toured him through the then-existing emergency department – an hour that I will never forget.

“His focus was razor sharp on one issue: How could we make our patients’ experience better? What could we do to ease their pain and anxiety?

“After the tour, he asked me how much money we had raised to date. We were in the very early stages of the campaign and I shared that we only had a few donors committed.

“He immediately and unceremoniously responded, “Well now you have five million to get the ball rolling.”

Note to readers: That’s five million dollars. All those zeros go before the decimal point.

Charles P. Berkowitz is president and CEO of Jewish Home Family.

“Bill and I go back a long time,” he said. They first met when Berkowitz was a graduate student working at the JCC, then in Englewood, and Kaplen was active in the construction business. In 1972, when Berkowitz was on the staff at the Jewish Home, they worked together on the concept that became the assisted living facility in River Vale.

“Bill and Maggie gave the major gift, and then he and I walked the grounds at least twice a week, sometimes more after construction started.

“Bill had been a builder for his whole life, so he had tremendous insights, which were helpful to me. Every time I met with the architect, he was there, and later it was the same with the builders. He accompanied me to meetings with the town of River Vale for zoning approvals, and then he helped me find errors that were being made, late in the construction. We got them all amicably resolved.

“He was the president of the Jewish Home for Assisted Living and also served as a member of the board of the Jewish Home and Rehabilitation Center, which was the predecessor of the Jewish Home Foundation. He and Maggie were major supporters of the foundation.”

Berkowitz remembers that “in the 1960s, when I was a student, there was an issue at the community center about a tree. They wanted to remove it, and I, as a new student, spoke up. I said that they should work around the tree. It’s been there for a long time, I said, and it has history.

“Bill, not knowing this when we first met, took the same position. Because of our big mouths, we saved that tree.

“He reminded me of this story about a month ago, when I went to visit him. He wasn’t feeling very well, but he so clearly recalled the story, and told it to me, word for word as I remembered it.”

Berkowitz remembers, too, that when he was looking to raise money for a project at the Jewish Home, he called his friend Bill Kaplen and set up a meeting with him. “Bill said, ‘Don’t bring anybody with you. We can have a nice conversation about what we are going to do, just the two of us.’

“That’s what I did. He and Maggie gave a five million dollar gift.

“It was a nice visit.

“He was that kind of friend,” Berkowitz said. “If he liked you, he liked you. He was a very dear friend.”

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