Sarah-Jane Lorenzo ‘21
The Law School community gathered on Saturday to celebrate the life and legacy of Mortimer Caplin ’40, who died this summer at 103. Caplin was a dedicated alumnus and professor emeritus who served as a beachmaster for the U.S. Navy during the Normandy invasion, sought to bring ease to tax season as IRS Commissioner in the early 1960s, and co-founded the Washington, D.C. law firm Caplin & Drysdale.
University of Virginia President James Ryan delivered opening remarks, and reflected on some of Caplin’s earliest contributions to the University: as a member of the university’s boxing team, Caplin won an NCAA boxing title with a broken bone in his left hand. The words of his boxing coach continued to inspire him throughout his career—“Punch hard, punch first, and keep on punching.”
Caplin excelled academically and graduated first in his class from the Law School. His talent quickly led him back to Virginia, where he was a young law professor when Gregory Swanson, the first black student to attend UVA, applied for admission. Gregory Swanson’s nephew, Evans Hopkins, shared that Caplin’s advocacy on Swanson’s behalf was powerful.
When Swanson applied to the Law School, no black man had ever been admitted to an all white southern school. Law school faculty engaged in a spirited debate over Swanson’s application, and Caplin spoke strongly in Swanson’s favor. Although he was new to the faculty at the time and speaking up was risky, Caplin understood the importance of commitment to diversity. As the Law School’s first Jewish professor, discrimination was not foreign to him: despite graduating first in his class and serving as editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review, Caplin was repeatedly turned down by New York firms while searching for a job.
Perhaps inspired by Caplin’s impassioned advocacy, law faculty voted unanimously in favor of Swanson’s admission. The University’s Board of Visitors rejected the school’s decision and a legal battle ensued. When Swanson entered the Law School as a student, Caplin was one of his professors. Years later, a classmate that Swanson first befriended in Caplin’s class—Robert F. Kennedy—recommended Swanson’s employment at the IRS, where Caplin was then serving as Commissioner. Throughout his lifetime, Caplin remained dedicated to preserving Swanson’s story: in his 90s, he authored an online blog devoted to the Gregory Swanson case.
Wherever he went, Caplin was committed to his community. With his wife Ruth, he opened his home as a classroom for children in Charlottesville when the Governor of Virginia shut down state public schools during the massive resistance to federal desegregation orders following Brown v. Board of Education. Caplin’s son, Michael, remembered that his father always “shared what he had with anyone who needed it.”
At work, Caplin was known for sharing his energy with all who crossed his path. Caplin & Drysdale attorney Scott D. Michel ’80, noted that Caplin relished being a disrupter and enjoyed asking hard questions. Late into his 90s, Caplin continued swimming a mile each day and heading into the office. If asked about his age, Caplin liked to quote the witticism that, “age is a question of mind over matter—if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” As Michel said, “Mort didn’t mind, and it didn’t matter.”
Caplin believed that every generation can rise to greatness. Through his many contributions to the Law School, he sought to help thousands of students make the world a better place. Law School Dean Risa Goluboff reflected on Caplin’s spirit of giving and generosity and noted that gifts given in furtherance of his “legendary commitment to public service” continue to provide so many opportunities for students and faculty at the Law School each year.
Friends and coworkers described Caplin as humble and respectful, with a constant smile and a twinkle in his eye. His son Michael said that Caplin’s outlook was always bright and his zest for life was contagious. “His every day was designed by the passionate pursuit of the common good.”
President Ryan noted that Caplin extolled the virtues UVA strives to promote. “If you’re looking for an example of great and good,” he said, “look no further than Mort Caplin.”