Catching up with Paul Caplan at 106
Retired physician reflects on life, music and travels.
Paul Caplan’s days are often spent reading Voltaire, listening to classical music and playing trombone in the company of his collected art. On Saturdays the 106-year-old attends Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, partakes in post-services cake and wine and enjoys conversing with other members. Though Caplan retired from his work as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s physician many years ago, he still wears a jacket, shirt and tie every day — and humbly insists that he doesn’t deserve a spotlight.
“The reason for this [interview] is because I’ve lived long enough to establish some memories, which they may enjoy hearing or at least tolerate,” he said with a smile during a visit with a reporter.
Caplan was born in California, Pennsylvania. His father, Philip, an Eastern European refugee, arrived in the Washington County borough because a relative had a men’s clothing store nearby. Philip decided to open a women’s clothing store, called Caplan’s Big Store, where he sold the latest women’s fashions he’d bring in from New York.
Although Caplan’s Big Store was successful, Paul Caplan never considered joining the business. By the age of 10, he had decided to become a doctor.
“This met with my parents’ approval,” he said.
Caplan’s decision was spurred by an encounter with a doctor when his mother, Dora Freedman, was sick.
“My mother was ill and a general practitioner came to her bedside to treat her, and he was so kindly,” said Caplan. “He was so gentle and so caring that I said to myself, even then, ‘Someday I’d like to be like that man.’”
Nearly a century later, Caplan cannot recall the physician’s name, but he remembers his features. “His face and his affect remain with me to this date.”
Caplan’s decision to become a doctor was reinforced a year later during a ballgame at Colfax Elementary School.
“I wasn’t much of an athlete. Once I tried to be a catcher, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “The first ball hit me and I said, ‘That’s the end of this career. I’m not going to be a catcher. I think I’ll go to medical school instead.’”
Though Caplan is slightly embarrassed to draw attention just because of his longevity, he admits he has some incredible memories, including the time when only half the homes in the country had electricity.
“I remember a little bit of World War I,” he said. “I remember going into a railroad station — this is the end of World War I — and the troops were demonstrating. They were marching for benefit of the population.”
Caplan, born in 1912, was a child when the Great War ended in 1918. By the time World War II arrived, he’d already graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. As a practicing physician with the 83rd Infantry Division, Caplan was stationed in Normandy for months.
The experience was “terrible,” he said. “I was making a decision on who should be sent back with the next ambulance immediately and who can wait.”
But today, Caplan doesn’t think much about those days. “It’s kind of passed. I think I have more important things to think about such as, ‘What should we do tomorrow? What’s my next event?’”
Even so, he does still think about his late wife, Gertrude Forman, whom he married in 1942.
“She was beautiful, had a bright personality and was generous,” he previously told the Chronicle. She died in 2006, leaving Caplan and two daughters, Donna and Roberta.
“I enjoy my relationships with my daughters, but they’re not in Pittsburgh,” said Caplan. “They don’t intend to move here and I don’t intend to move to New York.”
More immediately, Caplan intends to go to his trombone and the nearby sheet music. Twice to three times a week, the jazz lover plays for roughly 10 to 15 minutes, though he no longer has the lip he once had. Though he used to be a working musician, now he just plays by himself.
“I no longer have an orchestra, no longer part of a group, it’s all past history, and remember my age is such that I no longer qualify as a jazz performer,” he said. “Maybe I’ve made that decision myself, but I don’t play with anybody anymore.”
As a teenager, Caplan had his own group — the Caplan Jazz Band, which included trombone, sax, trumpet and violin. The violin was included, Caplan said, “to add a little diversity.” The violinist decided to quit because his contributions were “being obliterated by the horns,” Caplan said. But the band continued for some time, playing bar mitzvahs and Italian weddings “because that’s where we were getting a small salary and a lot to eat,” he said. “We really weren’t good enough to play in any formal way. We were amateurs.”
Caplan still remembers the similarities between the Jewish and Italian groups he entertained. “They have the same sense of beauty, the same sense of music, the same sense of camaraderie. I mean, Jews want to preserve their faith. Italians want to preserve their faith as well.”
Caplan was exposed to other faith traditions and nationalities as the orchestra’s physician, too. He traveled the world with the musicians, going to Italy, Japan, Norway, Scotland, Sweden and Russia, where they were often met by politicians and dignitaries. “We were treated with much respect and with interest,” he said.
Being feted overseas, though, wasn’t most important to him. “The highlight of my career was first becoming a physician,” he said.
The good work he’s done in that profession is evident all over Caplan’s home, where the walls are hung with scores of awards and honors thanking him for decades of medical service. Medicine-themed books, prints and art also reflect the pride he takes in his former profession.
By the door, there’s a hat that has the words “83rd Infantry Division WWII” on the brim. When asked how the second World War influenced his practice of medicine, Caplan paused. “That’s a personal thing I’ll save for the next visit.”
Then, smiling, he added, “If I tell you everything now, you won’t come back.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.