People come and go at The Writers Circle fairly often. They get busy, move on to other things, graduate and go off to college…. But some people stay and their voices become entwined in the energy of a particular group. This was the case with Jerry Kaplan who passed away last week at the age of 86 after a rich, full life that any of us should envy and admire.
Jerry lived the way we all should, if we’re lucky – with vitality, purpose and a great sense of humor. He wholly embraced who he was without apology, and willingly sharing his vast knowledge and rich experience with our workshop members, the community and, when he had the chance, the larger world.
Jerry started with The Writers Circle in my original Thursday night class at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School, but later joined my Wednesday morning class in Maplewood where somehow he and the other writers just clicked. The rapport they developed became something that I looked forward to, not only as a teaching opportunity, but as a gathering of really wonderful friends.
Jerry wrote mostly stories of his childhood, a Jewish kid rough-and-tumble on the streets of the Bronx playing stick-ball, thinking constantly about food and, eventually, girls, getting into trouble and working his way out of it to become a young man, serving in World War II in Japan, falling in love, marrying and eventually becoming a math textbook writer and editor, a wonderful father and patient tutor of young students in our towns right until his last year or so.
His stories were always straightforward and usually humorous, rarely sentimental and never maudlin. He had little patience for flowery description and often called us on it in class – even me, which I loved and appreciated.
He offered up his stories the way they were, accepted our suggestions graciously but sometimes chose to ignore them. He used to tell about his early writing days when he had the chance to publish a story in the Saturday Evening Post (or some similarly prestigious publication of bygone days). The editor loved it, but wanted some changes. Jerry thought hard, but in the end he refused. The story wasn’t published, which I’m sure must have been hard. But he stood by his vision and believed in his voice. For that courage, we all admired him.
Being a writer is a tricky balance of sticking to one’s guns while accepting the well-intended guidance of teachers, mentors and editors. Sometimes we pay the consequences for stubbornness, but sometimes we reap the rewards. I often tell my students, “Our comments and suggestions may not be precisely right. But they point to a problem. It’s up to you how and whether to find a solution.”
Jerry was a master of sticking to his guns, better or worse. For this I carry a lot of respect and a little guilt. Last year, when we were putting together The Writers Circle Journal, we asked him to make a few changes to his submission. He refused. He wanted the story the way it was. And for that, we made the hard decision not to include it. It stings, because Jerry was – is – such a vital part of The Writers Circle. To me, he’s been an anchor and a friend. But in a way, I expected his decision; and I hope he respected ours. He was, through and through, utterly himself. If he could proudly refuse the Saturday Evening Post, then it is an honor to be refused by him.
Rest in peace, Jerry. I hope you’re playing stick-ball in the sky!