Sumner Kaplan, 91, state legislator, judge, selectman

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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Brookline may now be a Democratic stronghold, the place Michael S. Dukakis began the first of many campaigns that led him to become a presidential nominee, but it was not always so. Until Sumner Kaplan came along, the town was solidly Republican.

When Mr. Kaplan took his first step toward the State House in 1954, his victory was noted almost in passing, 15 paragraphs into a Globe roundup of election news: “For the first time in the history of Brookline, a Democrat was elected to the House of Representatives, the feat being accomplished by Sumner Kaplan.’’ Among the young reform-minded Democrats working on his campaign that fall was Dukakis.

“If it hadn’t been for Sumner, I never would have gotten actively involved in politics, and I’m not alone,’’ said Dukakis, who was elected to fill the same House seat eight years later when Mr. Kaplan ran for state Senate. “He was very much a transformative figure in state politics. And certainly for people like me and others who were touched by him and got deeply involved in his campaigns, he was everything.’’

Mr. Kaplan, who also served as a Brookline selectman, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, and a probate and family court judge, died March 20 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston of complications of congestive heart failure and lymphoma. He was 91 and had moved to Jamaica Plain 11 years ago after living most of his life in Brookline.

Rent control was Mr. Kaplan’s primary focus initially, but his approach to campaigning was just as important to his election. He went door to door and straphanger to straphanger, changing one voter’s mind at a time.

“Nobody had ever done that in Brookline,’’ Dukakis recalled. “This guy shows up at 7 in the morning at every one of the T stops in town. This was so different than anything this town had ever experienced, and it was a lesson for the rest of us. He was the mentor for us younger fry who were part of his crew, and in the course of moving Brookline out of the Republican column, he was a great role model.’’

On Beacon Hill, Mr. Kaplan did not shy from taking stands that bucked the prevailing mood. In the mid-1950s, when US Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin turned the red scare into something of a national obsession, the Massachusetts House passed a bill calling for public school teachers to be fired if they refused to say if they were Communists.

In an unsuccessful attempt to get the bill reconsidered, Mr. Kaplan questioned its constitutionality and said it turned teachers into “second-class citizens.’’

When the House debated capital punishment, Mr. Kaplan told the Globe that “only the poor man goes to the electric chair, because he cannot afford an expensive lawyer.’’

US Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, said that because of his military background, Mr. Kaplan “was a guy who showed that patriotism and liberalism are not contradictory.’’

“He also was able to be a very forceful advocate without being nasty,’’ Frank added. “We lament the lack of civility. He was the perfect example of somebody who was passionate and civil about issues. He was the opposite of a scary figure. He was a warm, open guy who had a lot of appeal.’’

Born in Boston, Sumner Zalman Kaplan was the youngest of three children and grew up in Dorchester and Roxbury until his family moved to Brookline during his senior year at Boston Latin School, from which he graduated in 1939.

He graduated from Massachusetts State College, now the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in 1941. During World War II, he rose to colonel while serving in the Army Corps of Engineers, then served for many years in the Army Reserve.

In 1944 he married Eleanor Fisher, with whom he had been fixed up on a date when she was 15 and he was 16.

“As a young boy, his reputation was of being very mischievous,’’ said his daughter Ruth of Brookline. “I think that would be a good way to characterize him his whole life, because there was a part of him that just enjoyed mischief.’’

Mr. Kaplan graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948 and worked as a lawyer, first in a firm, then in a practice with his brother and a friend. He also served as a Town Meeting member in Brookline and was on the Board of Selectmen for a dozen years, three as chairman.

In 1983, Governor Edward J. King appointed Mr. Kaplan to the probate and family court bench, and he served for a decade as a judge, including some years on a recall basis.

A service has been held for Mr. Kaplan, who remained active in political circles into his 80s and easily connected with people decades younger, whether they be aspirants for elective office or his five grandchildren, who called him Pal. The sobriquet originated when Mr. Kaplan was spending time with his first grandchild and said, “You know, we’re pals.’’

The nickname was appropriate for all he met, among them author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Mr. Kaplan helped officiate at her 1975 marriage to author and presidential adviser Richard Goodwin, who gave an emotional Town Meeting speech of his own about rent control in the early 1950s while working with Mr. Kaplan on that contentious issue in Brookline.

“You just fall in love with the guy,’’ she said of Mr. Kaplan. “You can’t help it.’’

She called him one of the rare public officials who combined a closeness with his family with devotion to the larger worlds of politics and the judiciary.

“If he’d never been involved publicly,’’ she said, “he still would have been an extraordinary man in the eyes of those who knew him, because he exerted that kindness and warmth.’’

For years after his best friend and former law partner, Howard Katz, moved to Israel, Mr. Kaplan visited every year and called every Sunday. The two discussed everything from politics to personal lives to the biblical passages read at weekly services.

“He wasn’t a guy out of sight, out of mind; he was always in mind,’’ Katz said. “I used to say of him, ‘Sumner had a compulsion to do good.’ He didn’t just do good — he had a compulsion, and he would never do anything to hurt anybody, even when he had a reason to be angry.’’

Because of his public roles and unfailing good nature, Mr. Kaplan was an emotional and intellectual resource for generations of people he encountered.

“So many people relied on him for help and guidance and support,’’ said his daughter Marjorie of New York City. “He was probably the most optimistic, enthusiastic, positive human being I and many other people will ever know. It was all about giving. . . . He never said no.’’

“My mother told me the other day, ‘I don’t think he ever tallied it up and measured the full impact of his life,’ and she’s right, he was never keeping count,’’ Ruth said. “Nobody was.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at