If you were fortunate enough to be a friend of Joel Kaplan than you know the phrase “short of words” did not apply to him. In fact, when he told me recently that his grandson was getting married and he might be asked to make a toast, I realized it might be the first time in history that newlyweds spent their first wedding anniversary at their own wedding reception.
The amazing thing about Joel’s well-known verbosity is that all those words that did come out of his mouth were well worth listening to. Mr. Kaplan was on this Earth of ours’ for 94 years and he did not waste a single one of them.
He was born in Brooklyn on July 6, 1921. He worked his way through St. John’s University manning the night shift at a New York City newsstand on one of the World’s busiest corners, Broadway and 42nd Street. After graduating from St. John’s, he served his country as a member of the US Army Air Force, becoming a Sergeant with the 365th Fighter Group which was known as the Hell Hawks. That unit became famous for its deadly accurate bombing of German troop and munitions trains throughout Europe during WWII. It was a horrific experience Kaplan underwent during his time with the Hell Hawks that ended up being a blessing for the City of Amsterdam and its people.
On Christmas Eve of 1944, the 365th had overrun and taken control of a German air base in Metz, France. Ordered to dig fox holes, Kaplan explained the ground was frozen and impossible to penetrate. One week later, German planes returned and conducted a vicious bombing and machine gun attack of the airfield, which Kaplan described as “ten minutes of hell that seemed to last an eternity.” With nowhere to take cover Kaplan and his comrades scattered as best they could. As he was hugging the ground, convinced that he was about to be killed, he made a promise that if God let him live he would spend the rest of his life trying to help others. Fortunately he was required to fulfill that promise.
When he returned from service, Kaplan got an accounting job with New York City textile manufacturer, Lester Martin & Company. In 1946, Amsterdam industrialist, David Chalmers sold his knitted goods business and South Side factory to that firm and Kaplan began making regular trips upstate to monitor operations. In 1954, he was asked to transfer to Amsterdam permanently. Joel told me his late wife Florence was not at all thrilled with the idea of making a move from one of the World’s most exciting cities to Amsterdam but once she did, she fell in love with this community and found it a great place to raise the couple’s three children.
The Martin Company held the Fruit of the Loom trademark back then and the old Chalmers mill was filled with over 650 workers churning out underwear under that famous brand name. By 1959 however, competition from lower wage areas took its toll and the South Side plant closed. Over the next several years, Kaplan helped one small company after another try to keep the plant in operation with varying degrees of success.
What Joel was successful at doing was fulfilling that promise he made while hugging the ground of that airfield in Metz. He volunteered to serve on the boards and committees of over 30 Amsterdam-based non-profit corporations, using his financial acumen to help many of them continue operations and become more successful. The Montgomery County ARC was one such organization. When Joel first became involved with the group, they were struggling to meet payroll. Today, Liberty generates $50 million worth of revenue annually while providing essential services to the hundreds of people in Montgomery County who have special needs. I was fortunate enough to serve on the Liberty ARC Board with Joel for the past four years and I can attest to how integral his wisdom and experience continued to be to the success of that organization. Long-time Liberty CEO, the now-retired Frank Capone recently remarked that Kaplan had been involved in every major decision the organization has made in the last 35 years.
The last time I saw Joel alive was just a week before he passed. I had pulled into the Amsterdam Post Office parking lot and I caught a glimpse of him shuffling his way up Church Street toward another institution he dearly loved, the Amsterdam Public Library. By the time I parked my car, he was just turning the corner toward the side entrance of that beautiful building. I was going to yell but a loud tractor-trailer was motoring its way up Church at that moment. I had to be in Syracuse that afternoon so I decided not to chase after him. Of course now I wish I had done so but you know what? Seeing Joel headed to help the Library continue its critical mission is a perfect last memory of this very special man. May he rest in peace.