Paul Caplan tells a distinguished tale
Paul Caplan doesn’t want you to know his age, but he is happy to tell you his life story. Like the look of the teller himself, the tale is remarkably distinguished.
Caplan, a retired internist and rheumatologist, was born in California, Pa.
“My father was in business. He had a ladies’ and children’s clothing store there,” remarked Caplan.
The father, Philip Caplan, had arrived in the Monongahela River Borough after fleeing Eastern Europe.
“He was 13 or 14 or 15 and was going to be inducted into the Russian Army. His parents said, ‘Go to America,’” explained Caplan.
So Philip left his family, traveled from Lithuania to Germany and boarded a boat to Ellis Island. After arriving in New York, he headed west toward Pittsburgh.
“He had family in Jeannette, Pa.,” said the son.
Once here, Phillip “learned English, and spoke it really well, without an accent, and got a job as a printer.”
Philip married Dora Freedman, an American-born girl whose father was an Englishman and spoke Yiddish with a British accent, recalled Caplan. Dora’s brother had a men’s clothing store in California, Pa. Recognizing the economic opportunity available, Philip opened a women’s and children’s clothing store in the same city.
The family — Philip, Dora and their two sons, Paul and Joseph — lived in the Washington County Borough until an incident forced their relocation.
As Philip, Paul and Joseph were walking home from the store one Saturday evening, “we saw a cross burning on the rear backyard” of the family’s property.
The two boys were sent to live with an aunt and uncle roughly 35 miles north in Pittsburgh, while the parents sold the house and the business.
Paul Caplan was 11 at the time.
After arriving in Pittsburgh, he attended Colfax Elementary School and then Schenley High School.
“In high school I decided I want to be a physician,” he explained. It was a determination made upon observation.
“My mother had some transient” medical issues, and a “family doctor came to the home.”
That doctor, was a “distinguished” and “kindly man” who had a beard and was “thoughtful,” recalled Caplan.
Dora Caplan recovered “and that’s when I decided to become a doctor,” he noted.
So years later, after attending the University of Pittsburgh, Caplan enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His acceptance was of note, explained Mary Brignano, an author who is writing a history of the school, as at the time “the School of Medicine had an unspoken quota on Jewish students as well as on women and African-Americans,” she explained.
Back then, Brignano added, “there were no sulfa drugs, no penicillin, no polio vaccine, no transplants, few medical specialties and very few grants for scientific medical research. Pittsburgh was a pretty grim place in those days, so I think the desire to help people by becoming a doctor was a triumph of courage, optimism and hope in the future.”
Following medical school, Caplan received an internship locally at Montefiore Hospital before venturing east to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston for residency in medicine.
Upon concluding his training, Caplan returned to Pittsburgh and opened an office in Jenkins Arcade, a historic downtown low-rise building. Nonetheless, despite his professional start, he was “called to duty maybe two years later.”
As a member of the 83rd Division, Caplan went to Normandy, where he stayed until VE Day.
After an honorable discharge, Caplan returned again to Pittsburgh and reopened a medical office on the fourth floor of the building at 3500 Fifth Ave. in Oakland.
“And that’s where I stayed until my retirement.”
Although Caplan left the practice of medicine more than a decade ago, he has never stopped studying the field. He researches current trends, while visiting the UPMC library in Presbyterian Hospital and utilizes the resources there to explore other areas, such as psychology.
“I have an interest in people,” he explained.
Such is demonstrated during his weekly classes at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
Of the various subjects broached, Caplan has discussed medicine and the Bible, arthritis and the life of Sigmund Freud.
“Dr. Caplan is knowledgeable on so many topics, and he is so generous in sharing his expertise with us,” said Sybil Lieberman, JCC department director, AgeWell Pittsburgh.
“The classes are always enjoyable, and you learn a lot,” added Dorene Coffey, a regular at Caplan’s Monday afternoon series.
Often dressed in a jacket, shirt and tie, Caplan considers himself “old-fashioned.” Perhaps so, but he is far from doddery. Caplan lives alone, maintains an active and intellectually challenging lifestyle and speaks with elocution on myriad subjects while employing a masterful vocabulary.
“I take no medications, and I go to a doctor twice a year,” he added.
The fact that Caplan’s age belies his appearance is a fact that he can only partially claim credit for. “I selected the right grandparents,” he said. “It’s really genetic, I presume so.”
And apart from lucking out on good genes, he also said that he was fortunate to have a wonderful wife.
“I got married in 1942 to Gertrude (Forman) Caplan. She was beautiful, had a bright personality and was generous.”
When she passed away in 2006, at 85, she left behind her husband and their two daughters, Donna and Roberta, both of whom are “beautiful and accomplished,” remarked Caplan.
As for what else the one-time physician of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would like people to know, he deferred on mentioning that Pitt Medical School will honor him next week at its graduation ceremony as the oldest living graduate. Instead, Caplan remarked, “I’m still alive.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.