Morris Kaplan, colorful defender of the poor

January 21, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Morris Kaplan wanted to die with his boots on. He very nearly did.

The nearly legendary 83-year-old Baltimore lawyer died at home in his sleep yesterday morning. The day before he had spent four hours at his office on the 13th floor of the Court Square Building downtown, looking over papers, taking phone calls and discussing cases with his son, Michael, a lawyer with whom he shared the office.

Michael Kaplan said yesterday afternoon that his father, who never considered retiring, had been so short of breath the past three weeks that he hadn't often come to work. But Morris Kaplan had insisted on coming in Tuesday.

He died the next morning from complications of emphysema. "He just wore out," Michael Kaplan said.

Morris Kaplan was a working lawyer in Baltimore for 62 years. Stooped, frail, with thin white hair and a rigid profile, he was famous for his colorful attire -- a pink sport coat with green pants one day, a blue sport coat with red pants the next.

His notes, messages and court documents -- most of his file cabinet -- were stuffed into his coat pockets. The rest he carried in his head. His memory was so sharp that he never took notes during a trial.

"They always called me the busiest lawyer in town," Mr. Kaplan said in an interview for a profile in October. "I've had all the poor clients; that's always been the case. I had the greatest volume for any individual lawyer in town."

News of his death spread through city courthouses yesterday, causing "sadness at the passing of an era and a legend," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti, "as well as a recognition of what he left behind: his good humor, warmth, wit, all of that."

"He's a fixture," said Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan. "The courthouses won't be the same without Morris roaming the halls in his brightly colored jacket and his mismatched brightly colored pants.

"He is the last of a generation of old-time criminal lawyers. You just don't see those people anymore -- lawyers who try cases on the facts, as opposed to the law. Morris had a tremendous brain for facts -- description of the scene, what took place, that kind of thing."

Mr. Kaplan lived in Baltimore nearly all his life. He was born in New York City a couple of days after his parents stepped off a boat from Lithuania. They came to Baltimore, where they had friends.

Lena and Charles Kaplan made women's clothing in a shop on Eutaw Street, then went into the grocery business and later into real estate. Much was expected of Morris, the eldest of five children.

"In the Jewish ideology, the oldest became a professional," Mr. Kaplan said last fall. "And any boy, if the parents had the money, was to be a doctor or lawyer."

Mr. Kaplan attended City College and then the University of Baltimore. He graduated in 2 1/2 years, in 1928 at age 19. He had to wait until he turned 21 to begin practicing law.

"I handled the kind of cases most of us can understand -- the ordinary rapist, robber," Mr. Kaplan said. "They're not very complex cases."

But he handled them with wit and charm. Judge Angeletti remembers one case where Mr. Kaplan's Hispanic client launched into a 10-minute tirade before his trial even started. Finally, the judge asked Mr. Kaplan what his client had said.

Mr. Kaplan, who probably hadn't understood one word, promptly responded: "He said he's not guilty, your honor."

During his interview last fall, Mr. Kaplan said: "I'm going to die with my boots on. I'll be here till the man puts me in the box. That's why I don't ride on Reisterstown Road if I can help it. That's where Levinson's got his funeral home."

Services for Mr. Kaplan were to be held at 2 p.m. today at the Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home at 6010 Reisterstown Road. Burial will follow at Druid Ridge Cemetery.

Mr. Kaplan is survived by one daughter, Margaret Stern, and three sons, Michael Lee Kaplan, Martin Joseph Kaplan and Mark Charles "Chuckie" Kaplan; two sisters, Betty Hurwitz and Ethel Seidman; one brother, Isadore Kaplan; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. All are from the Baltimore area.

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