Anthony Tung Recalls Professor Leo S. Kaplan
June 05, 2017
Below is an essay written by former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner (1978-88) Anthony Tung AR'72, who shares his recollections of Professor Leo Kaplan, who passed away on May 23.
Mr. Tung authored Preserving the World's Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis (English-language edition: 2001: Japanese-language edition: 2006; Chinese-language edition: 2014). He has taught about international urban preservation at MIT and Columbia University and has lectured widely on the subject: delivering keynotes at a UNESCO colloquium in Amsterdam in 2010; at a World Bank conference in Oslo in 2012; and at a Ford Foundation symposium in Havana in 2017.
"There was a zeitgeist in those years, an idealistic spirit: when young people marched for Civil Rights and to end the war in Vietnam," Leo Kaplan recalled when looking back. "You could feel it in the classroom where students were hungry to learn, to challenge old ideas."
There also was an unfolding revolution at the Cooper Union in its architecture school which I was very lucky to experience (from 1965 to 1972). When teachers taught so deftly that the work of their pupils would be exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in November of 1971, in the days when John Hejduk and Robert Slutzky were expanding the possibilities of American architectural education.
"There are three giant intellects you will encounter here at Cooper Union," I was informed as a sophomore by a thesis architecture student: "Hejduk, Slutzky, and Kaplan." Indeed, although his fifth-year architecture class had already fulfilled their Humanities requirements, they asked Professor Kaplan to teach them for another semester. Unaccredited, to learn for learning's sake.
"It was an honor," Leo would tell me, years later, of the rigorous social science course he built with utmost care.
'Rigorous' was the pertinent word. And a daunting one at that, the first time I saw Professor Kaplan in a classroom: straight and tall with penetrating eagle eyes, speaking with precision. He never let a half-formed thought go by without exacting correction. How will I ever meet this standard? I worried in my seat.
"So, Mr. Tung, on what day of the week shall we meet for your tutorial?" he asked when that initial class had ended, in reference to the practice adopted by my professors in the Humanities Department because I read so broadly beyond the curriculum. Reading extensively was at first an act of desperation, a simple necessity. Because, otherwise, I couldn't comprehend the materials. But with time, these weekly tutorials resulted in a second splendid education in addition to the one I received in architecture. In the zeitgeist of the era, in the idealistic milieu of the Cooper Union, I was adopted by a whole department. And I added-on as many Humanities courses as possible, especially with Leo who taught me how to read with analytic rigor—while also being warmly tender-hearted.
"Oh! —Tony!" he'd happily exclaim when seeing I'd arrived in his office. For that is how he greeted students knocking on his door: as if they were a blessing on his day. Like he was for me—as his razor-sharp tutorials heightened my proficiency in city planning studies that I loved.
Twenty-five years later he became my teacher once again: after my sojourn as a New York City Landmarks Commissioner and while I was writing a book about the preservation of the world's most beautiful historic cities—struggling to make a volume of substantial thought, struggling to realize a dream.
We met an uncountable number of times in his office that was cluttered with his books, books, books. Sometimes with a shopping bag of them for me to read. Whose substance we would talk about for hours on end, wrestling with how to measure social theory against its products in the real world. (Communism on paper was one thing, the purges it engendered was another—in cities such as Moscow and Beijing.) And Leo was exactly the person to talk about principles in action.
He was probably the most bravely moral person I have met.
The child of immigrant European Jews active in pursuing progressive social change, he entered City College when 16. As the Nazis rose to power, his family foresaw the impending Holocaust. Thusly once the war commenced, Leo promptly enlisted, serving with heroism in the Pacific, gravely wounded when attempting to save a member of his platoon from an inextricable position—going out while others stayed entrenched. "How did you find the courage to expose yourself to such withering fire?" I asked him. "One doesn't think," he told me. "You only hear the cries of pain. The crying of a brother."
It was more than a year before he'd walk again, coming home and teaching in a public college in New York—as the brutalities of the Stalin regime were coming to light, the many millions of them. Which Leo denounced, openly, on the radio. "Political science was my field, hence it was important I speak out." After which, in a McCarthy-era witch hunt he was asked to tender names. On principle, Leo refused to speak in any way at all. And promptly was fired—even given his record in the army.
He wandered the streets with a family to feed, black-listed, eventually finding work at an advertising firm. Which became quite lucrative, until after several years, out of the blue, he was asked to come to teach at Cooper Union. At a salary that was far from being comparable. Which Leo still accepted, "For, Tony, I couldn't let the witch-hunt steal my life. I couldn't let them steal my love of teaching."
Joyfully with gratitude, he taught at Cooper Union for decades, becoming the head of the Humanities Department and eventually the Provost of the college. (He never negotiated his salary at Cooper because it simply was to him a blessing.) In these final Cooper years, Leo, and his wife, Tilly, began sponsoring the immigration of Russian Jewish families to the USA. On one occasion when traveling in the Soviet Union—while the KGB was watching every move they made—they even braved the chance to help some dissidents. (Cooper Union and the US State Department had to intervene to get them out.) Astoundingly in all, they sponsored more than 60 people. "And not a single one of them failed to pay me back," Leo told me on an evening at Lincoln Center, where because he and Tilly worked as volunteers they had numerous tickets to dispense. Where I sat next to an immigrant concert pianist who was weeping for joy, hearing for the first time an obscure Russian symphony: having traveled round the world to find the birthright of her home—via a Kaplan-sponsored visa.
It was the completion of a circle of generosity, one of many across Leo's life, including one that nurtured me as a student and later when he was my cherished mentor-friend. "Oh! —Tony!" I hear his cheerful voice. "What would you like to talk about today?" Marx, Engels, Weber, Freud, Shakespeare, Sartre, Camus? All of them, Leo, with your singular acuity: For he didn't simply study virtuous ideas, he was a man who lived by them—and thus a perfect fit for Peter Cooper.