Citizen of the World

Former Board of Trustees chair Helene Lois Kaplan ’53 put the College front and center for more than 70 years

By Janet Faller Sassi

Lois Kaplan

“I’ve always taken home an enormous briefcase,” Helene Lois Kaplan ’53 told alumnae on receiving the Recognition Award for Service to Barnard in 2003.

In a legal career that spanned more than 50 years, Kaplan, who died on January 26 at age 89, lived true to her words. She served as a director or a board member on a score of nonprofit institutions, philanthropies, and Fortune 500 corporations, where she was often the only woman at the table. In the corporate world, she held directorships at ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, MetLife, Bell Atlantic, and Verizon Communications, among others.

“I like to participate in institutions that make a difference,” she said. Indeed, it was her lifelong affection for, and service to, her alma mater, where she was a trustee or board chair for 25 years, that meant the most to her, said her husband, Mark Kaplan. “Barnard was her first and most substantial [institutional] relationship. It changed both of our lives,” he says.

Helene Finkelstein arrived at Barnard in 1949, a bright 16-year-old from Brooklyn. She met her future husband as a freshman at a Columbia-Barnard social. The couple married in 1952, while he was finishing his law degree and she was in her senior year.

In that post-WWII era, women typically married young and concentrated on raising a family. Kaplan, however, had dreams of becoming a lawyer. When the couple became parents of two daughters in the mid-1950s, she had to put her ambitions on hold.

“Even when we brought our first baby home, we both knew that eventually she’d go to law school. She was a fiercely determined, independent person. Her time at Barnard reinforced that,” says Mark Kaplan.

In 1967, after a decade raising her daughters, Kaplan graduated from NYU School of Law. She eventually became of counsel for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where she built a reputation as a legal adviser for nonprofit and philanthropic institutions.

Among Kaplan’s key accomplishments as Barnard board chair was helping to preserve it as an independent women’s college when Columbia University went coed. “This bold move allowed for decades of successful Barnard women to thrive and produced other great leaders like herself,” said Cheryl Milstein ’82, P’14, chair of Barnard’s Board of Trustees.

The Sulzberger Residence Hall was also completed under Kaplan’s chairmanship, making Barnard a fully residential campus for the first time. 

In addition, her passion for helping women advance in underrepresented fields inspired her and her husband to fund Barnard’s first endowed chair in the natural and physical sciences.

“She was a generous contributor,” says Ellen Futter ’71, president emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and a former president of Barnard, who considered Kaplan both a close friend and a mentor. “The establishment of the chair was her way of keeping the academic side of the house strong. Her leadership with respect to the [Sulzberger] dorm was about recruiting students from all over.”

Kaplan was awarded the Barnard Medal of Distinction, the College’s highest honor, in 1993. In the nonprofit world, she served as the first female chair of the board of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and became its first chair to be made an honorary trustee. She was a longtime trustee of the AMNH, and for her service, the museum named a newly discovered species of spider, Oonopoides kaplanae, in her honor.

“She was someone who was able to step into new roles for women. Her style made her leadership very effective,” said Futter. “She was a good listener, a highly collegial person, and a great synthesizer of information who could bring things forward so they could become actionable.”

In addition to her husband, Kaplan is survived by her daughters, Marjorie Kaplan and Sue Kaplan, and four grandchildren. Marjorie Kaplan describes her mother as a woman who was deeply committed to her family at home and at the same time a successful “citizen of the world.”

“Our parents made us feel that anything was possible,” she says. “And that was part of their partnership, too. It helped my mother accomplish things at a time when not many doors were open for women.”

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