Armond Jay Caplan starts a new century

by | Jun 7, 2012 | Uncategorized

Jimmy, Armond and Steve Caplan

Jimmy, Armond and Steve Caplan

Armond Caplan arrives each morning at the BB&T building in downtown Norfolk from his home at the Beth Sholom Terrace ready to put in a good day’s work. He mentions with a smile that someday he might decide to retire, but not just yet! Approaching his 100th birthday, June 22, 2012, he still loves the intrigue of making a business deal and brings history, perspective and knowledge to his daily conversations with his partners.

A graduate from the College of William and Mary in 1933, Caplan was chosen to be a member of ODK, one of the most prestigious collegiate honor societies in the country. By his own admission, he was “very active in all aspects of campus life.” Recognized for outstanding leadership and academic success, he also became the society’s first Jewish member.

This past year he travelled to his alma mater to visit his great grandson who had settled in as a freshman. Asked to lunch with the Dean of Students, the 99-year-old recognized that the dean’s last name was the same as one of his chemistry professor’s. He discovered that she was, in fact, his college professor’s daughter, bridging five generations into one common experience. He also learned that he held the distinction of being the school’s eldest alumni.

Although Caplan amassed many premed classes during his undergraduate years and was accepted to Medical College of Virginia, he turned down the offer. During his senior year, he decided not to pursue medicine. Graduating with a B.S. in chemistry, he was only sure about one thing: he wanted to marry Rose Jacobson. Acquainted in Tidewater, they met again in college, when Caplan was an upperclassman, and Rose a freshman.

Raised in Portsmouth as a first generation American, and the third child of Lithuanian immigrants, Caplan learned early on that education and hard work were important priorities to his parents. His father, Louis (L.T.), a cigar maker who rolled stogies by hand as his first profession, supported his wife, three sons and three daughters by opening a grocery store in Portsmouth.

“As a young boy of 12, I worked after school, as did my siblings. Our house was attached to the back of the store, so it was easy to complete lessons, work and play.

“My father made sure that all six of us went on to college. He always regretted not having a formal education himself,” Caplan says.

“I respected my father. He was like my friend. I learned the importance of being generous from his behavior,” Caplan says. Among other activities, his father was president of the synagogue, Chevra T’helim, now the Jewish Museum & Cultural Center.

On Oct. 16, 1934, Caplan married Rose in Portsmouth’s Orthodox schul, and then moved to Norfolk. During the throws of the Depression, they opened a lady’s milliner and hosiery store called Raymond’s on Church Street, which later became known as Armond’s. In the clothing business for 20 years, Caplan reveals, “I never really enjoyed retail, but my wife had an artistic flair, and she loved it.” He adds, “Even during her later years, when robbed of her memory by dementia, Rose communicated through her artwork. She remained a wonderful painter.”

“She was always the boss,” he smiles with a glint in his eyes. “I treated her that way. Rose raised our first two children as a working woman.” Gloria was born in 1937, Steve in 1943. When Jimmy was born in 1948, she stopped going to the store on a daily basis.

During Caplan’s years as a “Church Street merchant,” he became interested in the real estate business. After selling Armond’s, he acquired his real estate license, as well as his license to sell insurance. Caplan’s first sale was a Shoney’s restaurant on Little Creek Road, familiarizing himself with the world of real estate. That next year, he and Al Fleder became partners, working in the field of finance. In 1961, Bernard Jaffe joined the team.

Within a short time, the three men began dabbling in real estate development in Virginia Beach. The Virginia Beach- Norfolk Expressway (Interstate 264), built in 1967, changed the lifestyle of Tidewater residents. Because there was easy access between Norfolk and the oceanfront, the land between the two cities became prime property.

Today, 50 years later, the partnership continues among the three families. Lawrence Fleder and Karen Jaffe workalongside Caplan and his two sons, Jimmy and Steve.

When Caplan talks of his two original partners, he readily acknowledges, “The three of us were a good match. We truly respected one another. We were able to talk through any disagreements because we were committed to maintaining our relationship. Our bond took precedence over the success of any business transaction.”

In describing their work ethic, Caplan emphasizes, “We always felt that a deal was only successful if the customer was willing to enter into another business venture with us. It was important that the outcome be fair.” Numerous lucrative opportunities were left on the table simply because they did not “feel good.” The employees have valued their jobs, several staying with the company for 45 to 50 years.

Caplan’s sons believe their father is the most optimistic person they know. In the past five to 10 years, his eyesight has dimmed and his hearing impaired. Yet, he still says with genuine sincerity “Every day is a good day.” Caplan continues to bring humor and laughter into his conversations.

He has also weathered through life’s sorrows and still feels he is a “lucky man.” “I lost my two girls,” he says. “My wife Rose passed away in 2006 after 72 years of marriage and my daughter Gloria, when she was 66 years old.

As the family’s Patriarch, he has had three children, nine grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. His oldest grandchild is 52. His oldest great grandchild is 21. This past April, the family celebrated their 106th consecutive Passover Seder. The tradition started in 1906 with his parents, L.T. and Tillie Pruss Caplan, a year after they got married. Each gathering begins with the ritual of lighting the couple’s silver candlesticks. Caplan and his wife Rose took over the Seder in 1965. Today, it is held in the social hall at Congregation Beth El to accommodate the entire family.

“My Jewish heritage is very important to me. The privileges that we know as American Jews, we would never see in any other country. We live in a great nation,” he says.

Caplan has spent many hours volunteering to insure the survival of his people. He remembers fundraising in 1948 when Israel became a Jewish nation and during its subsequent years when there were emergency drives to raise money for the country’s continued existence. In 1967, shortly after the war, he and Rose traveled for the first and only time to Israel with Caplan’s gin group buddies.

The couple also found cruising, relaxing. They shared many vacations and happy occasions with their friends from the Gold Band-Unity club. Organized when they were young marrieds, the social group grew to be more than 100 members.

In the 70s, Caplan’s true passion surfaced when Congregation Beth El was at a crossroads. Myers Hall needed extensive renovation to make it habitable. Rabbi Reich had left, and there was a “revolving door” of temporary clergy. He, along with others including Tavia Gordon, Arthur Kaplan, Mickey Kramer, Stuart Held, and J. David Barr, raised over a million dollars to restore the synagogue’s integrity.

Philanthropic throughout Hampton Roads, he also financially supported many other Jewish institutions. Today, the atriums of Congregation Beth El, the Sandler Family Campus and the Terrace at Beth Sholom Village all bear his family name.

As a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather, a friend, a store owner, a business man, a partner, a volunteer and a philanthropist, Caplan has been fueled by his belief in the power of respect and his uncanny ability to empathsize with others. At 100 years old, he has lived from a time when his father’s grocery store food bundles were delivered by horse and buggy to an age of technology where food is shipped overnight by placing an order on the Internet.

To this distinguished, spirited, gentle man, best wishes for a happy and healthy birthday celebration! Mazel Tov!

by Karen Lombart