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A Tribute to Jerome L. “Jerry” Kaplan


“Stand next to Jerry at any bar or statewide CLE event, and you’ll meet everyone.” That’s what my new colleagues told me when I joined Stone & Baxter. They were right. Ward Stone (my mentor) and Jerry Kaplan (Ward’s mentor) picked me up at my house on March 18, 2010—literally my first day at the firm—to attend SBLI in Atlanta. And before the weekend was over, I had met more judges and lawyers in three days than I had met in my prior three years of practice combined.

Sadly, Jerome Lewis Kaplan died earlier this year on January 26, 2022. He was 86.

Clearly, I took my time with this. I wanted to get it right, and I hope it is right. Here goes.

Introduction

If you’re a Georgia business lawyer, then you likely knew of Jerry Kaplan or you had his two volume Corporations treatise in your library. He was a legend, especially in commercial and bankruptcy law circles—the Dean of the Macon Bankruptcy Bar and one on a short list of candidates for Dean of the Georgia Bankruptcy Bar. While I like to think of Jerry as a debtor’s lawyer—one of the good guys—in his prime he was also a fierce commercial debt collector who helped pioneer modern debt collection practices. If you were a member of any one or more of his firms that weaved their way through the 60s to the present, then, as your mentor, guru, and friend, he was and is family.

And until recently, “JLK” was my colleague of almost twelve years at Stone & Baxter.

Unfortunately, his health issues, COVID separateness, the busyness of life, and other “excuses of the relatively young” kept us all apart over the last couple of years. Last year, a few of us had mentioned driving over with some lunch and visiting him, but we didn’t. I regret that. Life is too short, but not so much for Jerry who lived a long, full life.

Here is what I knew about Jerry personally or enjoyed learning about him.

To start, in April 1994, Jerry did an interview for the National Bankruptcy Archives that are sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Law School. You can find the audio here and the transcript here. Some of the following comes from that.

The Early Years

Jerry was born in Macon, Georgia on September 3, 1935. His parents were Genevieve Berkman Kaplan and Ira Kaplan. His grandfather on his father’s side emigrated from Poland in 1880 to Macon. Using Jerry’s own, famously blunt words, his grandmother “[b]irthed my father, and three siblings, and then died in childbirth with the last child.” His mother’s father came from Russia, also coming to the U.S., and his mother’s mother came from Vienna, Austria.

After graduating from Lanier High School, he headed to the University of Georgia . He graduated in 1956. As a side note, the Bulldogs earned their second National Championship in January, and just in time. I hope he got to see it. While Jerry’s father had been a merchant for most of his adult life, he decided to go into the general insurance business right around the time Jerry graduated from UGA. So after college, Jerry joined his father in Macon doing insurance for a couple of years.

On the advice of Prof. Charles Nadler—a Mercer law professor and Jerry’s uncle—Jerry enrolled at Mercer Law School. Jerry’s father decided that he would no longer fund Jerry’s education so Jerry made arrangements with his “friendly banker” to attend law school. Like Judge Drake a few years before him, Jerry took Prof. Nadler’s bankruptcy class. Jerry was on the Mercer Law Review and graduated number four or five in his class in 1961.

Like many avid, lifetime readers, Jerry liked to write his name and address in his books. Based on his 1959 Strunk & White (which found a home in my new office) and the real estate records (which show that his father Ira owned it in 1959), this was Jerry’s home, if not a childhood home:

Lawyer Ken Banks lives there now.

Law Practice in Macon in the 1960s

I have little interest in genealogy, mainly because I have no idea where to start. However, I’ve recently acquired an interest in what I’ll call “law firm genealogy.” That is because my firm and so many firms in the Bankruptcy Bar around Georgia have such a tangled but interesting genealogy. Ours goes back over 60 years, but only because of Jerry. He’s the critical connector.

As he explains it, there wasn’t much demand for lawyers in the early 1960s when he graduated. By Jerry’s recollection, there may have been around 150 lawyers in Macon at the time. Having little interest in Atlanta and some “fear” about leaving Macon, Jerry joined Adams, O’Neal, Steele & Thornton in 1961. The Adams firm was a five lawyer firm that was heavy in criminal defense, personal injury, and real estate. It started out in 1957 when Charles Adams, Hank O’Neal, and Robert Steele merged their practices. They added Jerry to round out their business practice in 1961. They built their office at 165 First Street a year or two before Jerry joined. Thus, this is Jerry’s first law office at 165 First Street (before it was recently spruced up):

I think Childs & Childs, among others, has its law practice there today.

Jerry had always wanted to do business law. Originally, he wanted to be a tax lawyer. However, he “couldn’t find anybody who had a significant tax problem who wanted to give it to someone one year out of law school.” Thus, needing to find a business law inroad and with some urging from his uncle, Prof. Nadler, Jerry started his bankruptcy practice. As Jerry tells it, “it was not something most people wanted to do back then. It was not a sought after practice. It was a very unsought after practice I would say. Being a bankruptcy lawyer back then was sort of like being a criminal lawyer, a collection lawyer, a divorce lawyer. None of the big firms wanted to do it or did it. They referred it out.”

Thus, at the Adams firm, Jerry became one of only four or five bankruptcy lawyers in all of Macon at the time. I can’t help but imagine the “Back to the Future”-style bizarro world that would fill in around Jerry if a lucrative tax client had arrived on Jerry’s doorstep in the early 60s. The Bankruptcy Bar in Georgia might look entirely different. “Stone & Baxter, Middle Georgia’s business tax law firm.” Yikes.

Charlie Adams and Hank O’Neal Grow a Firm

The lawyers who had the greatest impact on Jerry’s legal career were his first senior partners, Charlie Adams and Hank O’Neal, two lawyers who I’ve only heard (many) stories about over the years. I’ll let Jerry recount it:

The lawyers that I remember, of course, are my two partners, my great teachers and mentors—my senior partner Charles Adams and my senior partner Hank O’Neal. Charles taught me about what I should call the business of law and Hank taught me about the practice of law. Hank was really a splendid litigator.

 

For example, Adams and O’Neal had successfully prosecuted Anjette Lyles in one of Macon’s most famous murder trials. And they were also involved in the Chester Burge murder trial, as recounted in Richard Hutto’s book, A Peculiar Tribe of People: Murder and Madness in the Heart of Georgia (which Matt Cathey loaned to me over 12 years ago and I forgot to return—oops—Matt, too, is one of those “name in the book” guys).

In late 1962, the firm added Bill Hemingway and John Hemingway who had served in World War II and earned their law degrees by way of the G.I. Bill. And then, in 1965, the Adams firm moved to the Fulton Federal Building on Mulberry Street:

(I could devote an entire post to just Hemmingway stories.)

Here are the rest of them in 1968:

 

By 1969 or so, the firm was known as Adams, O’Neal, Hemingway, Kaplan, Stone & Brown, with that Stone being Kice Stone and Brown being Manley Brown—both well known and well-regarded lawyers. I saw many references to “KS” in Jerry’s papers and correspondence over the years.

Of course, Jerry, like so many professionals of that time, was all about drafting letters, no matter how mundane or important the topic. While he was proficient with email, letters stayed with him throughout his life. Thus, we have enough of his letters to realize how many important Georgia figures Jerry was on a first name basis with that we’d never even consider our being on a first name basis with.

Moving On To the 70s

In or about 1971, after Prof. Nadler died, Jerry approached Prof. Nadler’s widow (Jerry’s aunt) about taking over as the editor of Nadler’s Georgia Corporations, which was and still is the treatise on Georgia corporations law. And so from 1971 through around 2014, Jerry edited Kaplan’s Nadler Georgia Corporations, Limited Partnerships and Limited Liability Companies. For all of my years as the Stone & Baxter librarian, I’d tell our Westlaw rep that “Mr. Kaplan has his own, free author subscription.” Last I checked, the treatise slowly transitioned over to Jay Rankin (back when he was at Parker Hudson) and Elizabeth Rankin at King & Spalding.

Here’s an early 1979 version before it transitioned to the two volume paperback format:

In 1976, the Adams firm dissolved into at least three separate groups:

  • Jerry formed Kaplan & Hershner (with Robert “Bob” Hershner)
  • Adams carried on with Adams, Hemingway & Hemingway
  • O’Neal carried on with O’Neal & Brown

However, if I understand the oral histories correctly, they all carried on with an office sharing arrangement of some sort at the Fulton Federal Building at 544 Mulberry Street.

The stories about that building are just crazy—window washers nearly falling out of the window on a Saturday afternoon; steeplechase-for-hires hanging perilously over Mulberry Street to change out the flag; to Ward’s horror, the rubber soles of a law clerk’s shoes nearly catching fire in the library from a portable heater; a demonically possessed, sometimes functional elevator; and those “Darryl and My Other Brother Darryl”-type fix it guys, one of whom crashed down on top of a secretary’s desk when he electrocuted himself while changing an overhead light fixture.

Arnall Golden Gregory in the 80s

In 1978 and 1979, respectively, Jerry hired as associates Ron Thomason and Ward Stone–Ward Stone, of course, being my and all of my current colleagues’ mentor. When Bob Hershner was appointed in 1980 as a Bankruptcy Judge for the Middle District of Georgia, Kaplan & Hershner became Kaplan & Thomason. And then in 1981, Jerry hired Jim Smith.

In his opening remarks at one of our Inn of Court Meetings, (now Judge) Smith told a neat story about how, in June 1981, right after he had graduated from law school, his family had arranged for him to meet with Judge Drake on his front porch in Newnan. Seeking career advice, he told Judge Drake that he had applied with Jerry’s firm. As Judge Smith tells it, Judge Drake told him “Well I know Jerry. I’ll call him right now and tell him to hire you.” That’s how it went for those who were in Judge Drake’s and Jerry’s orbits. And as Judge Smith explained at the memorial in January, Jim celebrates August 31, 1981 (his first day on the job) each year.

Kaplan & Thomas later became Kaplan, Thomason & Stone when Ward became a partner. And then in 1985, they merged with Atlanta-based Arnall Golden Gregory and, in the process, formed AGG’s bankruptcy practice. For the longest time, AGG’s bankruptcy footprint was just four lawyers in Macon. Jerry chaired that department for a number of years. The internet indexes the AGG website back to about 1996 (which is after Ward had left in 1989). This is how that practice was constituted on the the AGG website in December 27, 1996 (AGG “world wide web” logo and all):

 

When Ward was there, they practiced out of what is now Christ Church’s business office:

Ward left AGG in or around 1989 to join Adams, Hemingway & Hemingway for the very practical reason that it was difficult to open a debtor file at a big firm without conflict issues. Mark Baxter (who retired from our firm last December) was already at the Adams firm when Ward came over. Jerry, Ron, and Jim, still at AGG, then moved over to 201 Second Street in Macon:

Over the years after that, AGG added, among others, Darryl Laddin (who co-chaired with Jerry before becoming the chair), Neil Gordon, Michael Holbein, Hayden Kepner, and Macon’s Blake Lisenby. Leon Jones worked for Jerry out of the Macon office in the late 80s. I was delighted that Leon came down from Atlanta for Jerry’s memorial in January.

Speaking of Leon, my wife Jessica and I attended Leon’s Firm Christmas party last December.

First, his new office rehab looks fantastic. Second, who did Leon’s wife Michelle ask about, unsolicited, over 32 years later? Jerry Kaplan. Paraphrasing: “Oh, do you work with Jerry Kaplan? How is he doing these days? Such a neat (and also intimidating) man! I remember, when Leon was clerking for Jerry [in 1989], Jerry and Louise took us to see Miss Firecracker, which starred Holly Hunter. When we were walking out of the movie, they told me that I look just like Holly Hunter, which I didn’t know how to take if you know anything about Holly Hunter’s role in that movie!”

Jerry made for an effortless and enjoyable 15 minute chat.

The Band Gets Back Together

Ward Stone and Mark Baxter left the Adams firm in 1996 to form Stone & Baxter. Jerry, Ron, and Jim carried on at AGG until October 2005 when they left AGG to join S&B. I’ve seen some of the papers and correspondence that orchestrated the homecoming and our (now former) space in the Fickling Building expanding to what it is now.

Side Note: Just last week, we moved out of the Fickling Building after 26 years.

That’s interesting for two reasons.

First, we bought 577 Third Street from Brian Adams (a young Macon lawyer and real estate developer). Brian just happens to be Judge Bill Adams’ son and Charlie Adams’ grandson. Charlie taught Jerry the business of law practice and Ward and Judge Adams practiced together in the 1980s at the Adams firm.

 

In moving our library over, I couldn’t help but notice the “Adams & Hemingway” stamp on so many of the books. Yes, Macon is a small town.

Second, in outfitting our new space, I’ve gotten to know Terry Holland, our longtime firm decorator. His connection to our firm was, you guessed it, Jerry and Louise Kaplan back in the 1970s. Among other stories, Terry told us about a fantastically heated but funny argument between Jerry and Louise (Jerry’s wife of 56 years), with Terry in the middle (in their bedroom no less), about $3,000 bedroom drapes that Louise had ordered, Jerry hated, but begrudgingly kept only after Terry sheepishly told him that Jerry had already paid for them.

Jerry in 1989:

Father and daughter lawyers in 2000:

Back to the timeline: Jim Smith became Judge Smith in early 2010 when he was appointed to replace Judge Hershner in the Middle District. He left in late February 2010 just as I arrived at the firm from North Carolina in March 2010.

At the memorial, Judge Smith added to my collection of neat stories about Jerry, including a story about how Jerry was instrumental in connecting him with Judge Lanier Anderson and instrumental in Judge Smith’s ultimate appointment. Another one of those “if Jerry vouches for you, I’ll vouch for you” moments.

While I can’t help but be proud of how my firm is directly connected to the last two appointments in Judge Smith and Judge Carter and indirectly connected to three of the last five appointments when you add-in Judge Hershner, we don’t have any of that without Jerry.

Louise Kaplan

I can’t tribute Jerry without talking about Louise. She died unexpectedly in 2019. I say unexpectedly—and people who knew the Kaplans would agree—because she was not only almost five years younger than Jerry, but she was also this impossibly energetic light in and around Macon. No offense to Jerry, but if you saw them together, she looked 10 inches shorter and 10 years younger than Jerry. Louise was involved in everything. Everyone knew her. And when she died, her memorial was packed, even on a hot Sunday afternoon in July.

While I didn’t know Louise well, Jessica and I shared enough firm holiday parties over the years to observe what everyone else has observed. First, she was delightful. Second, she and Jerry were a study in contrast, the most unlikely pairing.

I’ll crib from her obituary so I get it right. Louise was born in Highland Park, Illinois in 1940. She spent time at the University of Wisconsin and graduated from Milton College after which she spent a little time in Copenhagen, Denmark. Home from Denmark and visiting family in Macon, she met Jerry on a blind date. That’s one hell of a blind date for someone to have imposed on Louise! Louise and Jerry married very shortly after that in 1963, which brought her to Macon where they started a family. Beyond being Jerry’s wife, a mom to Lise and Billy, and a grandmother to five grandchildren, Louise could not have been more involved in her community. While Jerry was perfectly content reading a book in silence, Louise was everywhere.

With all of that energy and involvement, Louise, Jerry’s lovable foil and caretaker, always kept Jerry straight.

Thus, our favorite Jerry-Louise story is the time when Jerry greeted everyone at a firm holiday party by saying “On the way here, I almost lost control of the car.” Without skipping a beat, Louise quipped “Jerry, how can you have almost lost what you never had?!”

Funny stories aside, I can’t help but think that, as much love and friendship as Macon showed Jerry over his last couple of years, he was lost without Louise and lonelier still at his big house on Wesleyan Drive.

My Time with Jerry

Jerry settled in for guru status at Stone & Baxter after Jim Smith left for the bench. While the imposing—6’3 ? 6’4?—lawyer from the last fifty years became a little more stooped and walked a little more slowly, his mind remained sharp. I first met Jerry in November 2009 when I travelled from Greensboro, North Carolina to interview at the firm. Jim Frenzel had arranged for me to interview with Lamberth Cifelli in Atlanta on a Thursday and Stone & Baxter in Macon on a Friday.

At the time, I was a young, mostly corporate transactional lawyer who relied on Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law on a weekly basis. Thus, I was particularly fascinated by Jerry’s role in Kaplan’s Nadler. We talked about that a good bit and I told Jerry about my and Jessica’s connections to Middle Georgia.

Last year when we were helping Lise Kaplan, Jerry’s daughter (who is a local family law attorney), pack up his office, I came across my 2009 resume (still) in a stack of papers on Jerry’s desk. “Wife Jessica, family from Macon” was the lone, almost inscrutable, scribble 11 years later. Infamously, Jerry’s handwriting was terrible. Here is a sample from 1976, back when it was only relatively more legible:

Jerry Had Decades of These Books in His Office

 

“Consider buying new car.” Yeah right, Jerry.

[Thankfully, Lynne Chapman, Jerry’s assistant going way back and still one of our longtime assistants, could translate it. Lynne was another one of those special people who kept Jerry straight, even after he was no longer a fixture across the hall.]

At the risk of viewing it too sentimentally, Jerry mentored Ward and, in return, Ward, in his prime and running a busy and successful law firm, gave his mentor a warm and cozy place to ease into retirement after 45 years of active, lucrative, and impressive practice. And as a result, Austin Carter, Mark Watson, George McCallum, Chris Terry, Dave Bury, Matt Cathey, Ben Wallace, Tom McClendon, Dan Taylor, and years of summer associates—at Stone & Baxter alone—all had the pleasure of working just down the hall from a legend and a wonderful person for well over a decade. You don’t fully appreciate that until the tribute presents itself.

By the numbers:

  • I parked next to Jerry’s impossibly still-running champagne-colored Mercedes at least 2,000 times.
  • I ate lunch with Jerry and the guys each Monday at least 400 times.
  • We went to at least 5 SBLI events together—you could always count on Jerry to save you a spot at breakfast.
  • We went on at least 4 firm retreats together until it became too difficult for Jerry to travel (including the last one in 2014 when I treated Jerry (who was too tall to be comfortable in my  car) and Tom McClendon to Dairy Queen on the way home from St. Simons). And because it’s all circular, Tom is now practicing at Jones & Walden, Leon’s firm in Atlanta.
  • We often commiserated quietly in his office over our shared but, in North Macon, somewhat minority political views
  • We all exchanged hundreds of emails about the law and the world—he loved to print New York Times articles off of his computer for Lynne to then scan and email to the rest of the firm.
  • Although not as many as my other colleagues enjoyed, Jerry and I shared numerous drives home when Jerry needed a lift.

In short, I, like so many others, was proud to know and learn from Jerry. I’ll leave you with two things: Jerry’s office doorplate, which remained affixed to his door from 2005 until Matt chiseled it off last week and his colleagues’ hands down favorite picture of him, rocking no less than a tuxedo at the U.S. Supreme Court in God knows what year, for God knows what reason—a photo that Jerry used for his American College of Bankruptcy profile picture!

 

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