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Published Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ralph Kaplan Led a Charmed Life

By Joshua Resnek

Iva’s Lunch on Bennington Street circa 1946. Left to right: Harry Kaplan, his son Ralph and an unidentified employee.

Ralph Kaplan, one of the pillars of the Jewish community of the North Shore and a major leader for Israel Bond sales and Jewish causes in Greater Boston, whose Kappy’s Wine and Spirit stores dominate the Massachusetts retail liquor industry, died March 3 at his home in Swampscott. He was 91.

His wife of 68 years, Harriett, survives him, as well as four daughters, Anne Selby, Judy Mishkin, Roz Moore and Susan Kaplan, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Over seven decades, Mr. Kaplan branded, managed and methodically grew the family business from a single liquor store in East Boston called Harry’s into an industry giant, one that has successfully traversed the dramatic changes in consumer taste and buying habits over the years.

He also cultivated, during a long and productive life, hundreds of close, friendly and long lasting relationships with employees, vendors, members of the Jewish community and people from all walks of life. “He was generous, kind and non-judgmental,” recalled his daughter, Anne Selby.

“Until the end, his friendships spanned people of all ages, races and persuasions. He was a very special man,” she added.

Mr. Kaplan had enjoyed good health for much of his 91 years but began failing in 2014.

Even though confined to a wheelchair during the past two years, he continued the daily routine of running his business, making calls from his office every day to stay in touch with his friends and colleagues.

“His choice was always to work. His love was for his family, for everyone of us, for every cousin, for every relative,” Anne said. “He maintained the routine of his life until the end.”

Robert Selby, Anne’s husband, worked side by side with Mr. Kaplan in one way or another since 1968.

“We had a great relationship. Ralph was a good teacher. He led by example. He was a great friend of mine. His death is a major loss for me. We talked every day for almost 48 years,” he said.

On the last day of his life, Mr. Kaplan was driven to the Kappy’s company headquarters in Everett by his daughter, Anne, made numerous phone-calls, did his business for much of the day, then returned to the Blodgett Avenue home he built in the 1950’s, where he died.

Ralph Kaplan on his Bar Mitzvah day in East Boston, 1938.

Mr. Kaplan was born into a family of Russian Jews who arrived in East Boston penniless and unable to speak English, shortly after the turn of the last century when immigration was at its height. His father, Harry, was a fruit peddler who worked tenaciously to rise up out of poverty. “About all they brought with them was their heritage and their Judaism,” said daughter Anne.

Mr. Kaplan was born in East Boston in 1925. He came of age during the Great Depression while at the same time experiencing the American Dream and the melting pot society of working class East Boston.

Although he grew up in humble circumstances during the worst economic depression in American history, the experience served to energize him.

“They weren’t poverty stricken, but things were tough for them. They worked all the time. They were happy to work long and to work hard,” Anne said.

His father, who he idolized, set up the Kaplans in a two family house on Lexington Street in East Boston. His uncle, Bernard Kaplan, was also a partner in the business, and the three of them worked side by side.

It was in this crowded, bustling, topsy-turvy immigrant wonderland that Ralph Kaplan learned how to project himself among the struggling Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrant families that made up the East Boston demographic of that era.

He attended and graduated from Boston English High School. He then attended Boston University for two years. In later life, he received an honorary doctorate from Salem State University.

Mr. Kaplan’s father worked hard and saved his money, eventually being able to move on from being a fruit cart salesman and buying into a cafeteria.

Iva’s Lunch was a quintessentially American cafeteria catering to the new generations of working Americans hustling up the ladder. It was located on Bennington Street, offering 10 cent lunches and dinners.

This is where Mr. Kaplan learned about organization and value, as running a food operation all day every day, seven days a week, took skill and business acumen in order to survive.

“They worked such long hours Iva’s didn’t even have locks on the front door because it never closed,” Anne recalled.

Anne, who is regarded by her sisters as the family historian, said her father’s interest in the well-being of others and in charity began with his work experience in the cafeteria.

“Food for the East Boston poor at key times out of the cafeteria during the year was an important part of the business for my father,” she said. “He performed many, many acts of kindness without having to be asked or congratulated for it. It was always his way to give to those who were needy. For him, it was the right thing to do. We learned from him that giving back is always the right thing to do.”

The sale of Iva’s led to the purchase of the first Kaplan liquor store during World War II, Harry’s Liquors.

When Mr. Kaplan returned from a three year stint in the Navy as a dental technician, he went to work in the liquor store.

Managing Harry’s was Mr. Kaplan’s laboratory as a salesman and pioneer in the largely decentralized individually owned liquor industry of that era.

From an early age, he loved the business. It is hardly coincidental that he was destined to become a leader in an industry that would experience extraordinary growth in the decades to follow.

Ralph Kaplan shown on the telephone inside Harry’s Liquor Store, the first of many more Kaplan stores to follow.

When he was 22, Mr. Kaplan fell in love with Harriett Levine from Milton. They were married in the former Bradford Hotel in Boston in 1948.

“That they were together from the day they were married until the day he died – for 68 years – reflects our mother’s unconditional love and care for our father throughout a lifetime,” said Anne.

The sisters agreed, “Dad was the leader.

At work every day. Raising money for others. Caring for family. All of us had a powerful and loving relationship with him.”

Sister Judy added, “Dad always told us, ‘Dreams are possible if you make them happen.’”

“Mom took care of him. She supported him in whatever he attempted. Theirs was a traditional, Conservative Jewish marriage,” Anne added.

“And it worked.”

Judy said her parents had a remarkable marriage. “He was an incredible son and nephew and he was devoted to my mother’s family for all his adult life.”

Mr. Kaplan’s Judaism, according to his daughters, was a major component of his life.

He was not so much connected with Jewish ritual and its religious aspects, they said.

“He loved being Jewish. He raised millions of dollars for Israel Bonds, for all kinds of Jewish causes, the Anti-Defamation League, Cohen-Hillel Academy, Ben Gurion University in Israel and many others,” they agreed.

They said he was an ecumenical man, as well.

“He also felt the responsibility to give to many non-Jewish causes,” said Anne.

Ralph Kaplan at 65.

Congregation Shirat Hayam was packed to capacity at 11 a.m. on March 6 for Mr. Kaplan’s funeral.

Rabbi Michael Ragozin described Mr. Kaplan as a loving and generous man, as a devoted son, father, husband, nephew, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Daughter Judy, in her eulogy, thanked her father for allowing her and her sisters to find their own paths.

“He showed us how to value what is truly important in life. He left us a legacy that is legendary. We are all blessed to have known Ralph. Each of us can reflect on our own cherished memories of him – stories and connections that span many decades,” she said.

“Dad, we will miss your warm smile, your dedication to family and friends, your unwavering devotion to a myriad of organizations and causes, and your amazing goodness. You have touched all of us and your memory will endure forever in our hearts. We love you. May you rest in peace.”

Later that day, in a traditional Jewish graveside service, Mr. Kaplan was interred in the Shirat Hayam Cemetery on Lowell Street in Peabody.

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