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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawyer for federal workers’ rights, political satirist and Civil War buff dies of covid-19

Joseph V. Kaplan, third from left, died April 22 of covid-19. He is shown in an undated photo with, from left, son-in-law Justin Montanino, daughter Liza Kaplan Montanino, wife Ellen Kaplan, and daughters Amanda Kaplan and Ashley Kaplan.
Joseph V. Kaplan, third from left, died April 22 of covid-19. He is shown in an undated photo with, from left, son-in-law Justin Montanino, daughter Liza Kaplan Montanino, wife Ellen Kaplan, and daughters Amanda Kaplan and Ashley Kaplan. (Family photo)

When the novel coronavirus hit in March, Joseph and Ellen Kaplan drove to New York City and piled their daughter, son-in-law and two young grandchildren into their tan Honda minivan. Along with a second daughter and her boyfriend, they planned to ride out the pandemic together at their family home with a spacious backyard for the kids on a cul-de-sac in Silver Spring.

By the end of the month, the adults were all sick. Joseph Kaplan checked into the hospital when his breathing became labored. He died of covid-19 about three weeks later.

Kaplan, 66, spent four decades as a lawyer representing federal employees to improve their working conditions and ensure fair treatment. Even from Holy Cross Hospital this past spring, his voice weakened to a whisper after days on a ventilator, Kaplan insisted on checking the outcome of his last hearing, in which he defended a fired air traffic controller.

“He always had an interest in protecting working people from being treated unfairly by their employers,” said Edward Passman, his law partner of 30 years.

A larger-than-life Renaissance man, Kaplan taught executives from federal agencies at American University, training the next generation of government leaders to build better relationships with rank-and-file workers and their labor unions.

He spent hours perfecting recipes for pumpkin chocolate chip cheesecake or chocolate pecan bourbon pie to win cooking contests at his law office on L Street NW.

He loved history and read hundreds of books, filling his home office with artifacts, including an original document signed by Abraham Lincoln. When Kaplan traveled to Civil War sites, he jotted down the dates and locales on the inside cover of his copy of “The Civil War Battlefield Guide.”

“I never could figure out how he found the time with all the other things he was involved in,” Howie Cohen, his friend, traveling companion and fellow history buff, said in his eulogy. “It was like he was operating on a 28-hour day.”

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When Kaplan’s wife, Ellen, joined the political satire and musical group Hexagon in the early 1990s, he followed. Kaplan started behind the scenes in lighting and quickly began writing witty lyrics and performing. For the past six years, he was president of the nonprofit group, which donates show proceeds to charities.

“Whatever he was involved in, he put his whole self in, wholeheartedly, and made a big difference in people’s lives, especially mine,” Ellen said.

Onstage, Kaplan was a commanding presence with comedic timing and a big personality, even if Ellen was the more talented singer. His piece titled “Mrs. President” starred Ellen as Hillary Clinton, portrayed as the real power behind the former president.

More recently, Kaplan highlighted protests inspired by National Football League player Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem before games to denounce police violence against unarmed Black citizens.

The song “What We Kneed” concluded:

When injustice is around, take a knee.

When a gay, a Black, or Muslim’s not as free as they should be,

When the big shots at the workplace will not hear a woman’s plea,

Take a knee, take a knee, take a knee.

“Joe liked to stretch the limits,” said Jennifer Strand, Kaplan’s creative partner on many Hexagon shows. “He put a funny spin on a serious issue and held the mirror up to everybody.”

Kaplan grew up in Philadelphia, one of five children. His father worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He was 11 when he met Ellen in their Northeast neighborhood. The two became close when they were classmates at Pennsylvania State University, where Kaplan was president of the student government.

He also knew early on that he wanted to practice employment and labor law. The couple moved to Washington state, where Kaplan got his law degree from Gonzaga University in 1978, before getting a master’s at George Washington University.

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After working for the National Treasury Employees Union, Kaplan would go on to start a small firm with Passman in 1990. Adria Zeldin, a former colleague, recalled Kaplan’s sharp legal mind and high standards that she said made her a better lawyer. Kaplan was direct about his disappointment when he told Zeldin the questions she had drafted were not sufficiently specific.

“He knew I could do better work,” she said. “We ended up winning, and I learned quickly that he was going to be pretty strict and honest.”

Kaplan was in high demand to present at employment law conferences and co-wrote several editions of the “Federal Employees Legal Survival Guide.” A highlight of his career came in 2005 when he won a $3 million jury verdict in a disability rights lawsuit for a Commerce Department employee with multiple sclerosis.

“He took many clients over the years who would have lost their jobs and quality of their lives if it had not been for him,” Ellen said.

Kaplan also had an affinity for fine clothing with an extensive collection of ties and dress shirts with French cuffs and his monogram: JVK. For his online memorial service in April, Ellen and the couple’s three daughters, Liza, Ashley and Amanda, each wore one of Kaplan’s ties.

Kaplan had high blood pressure controlled with medicine, but he exercised and was otherwise healthy, his wife said. Before he left home for the hospital, he remarked to Ellen: “I hope they don’t keep me,” she recalled.

After 11 days on a ventilator, Kaplan’s condition improved. He and Ellen talked most mornings.

On Ellen’s birthday in April, friends stood on their street in masks, holding signs to wish her well. The extended family ordered takeout dinner from their favorite Italian restaurant and showed Kaplan the feast over FaceTime.

The next day, April 22, Ellen called Kaplan repeatedly after she hadn’t heard from him. When Kaplan finally answered, he said he was taking a nap and would call later.

Kaplan had relapsed, and he died that night.

“When a person dies now, you can’t even see them,” Ellen said of the pandemic. “It is just horrible. We never saw him again.”

The couple had planned to celebrate their 45th anniversary this summer with a trip to Italy.

“Our story wasn’t done,” Ellen said. “But it is.”