Former Help Center chief, ombudsperson Leah Kaplan dies at 83

Leah Kaplan

Leah Kaplan

Leah Lebeson Kaplan, whose service to Stanford included more than three decades of leadership and counseling, as well as 12 years as university ombudsperson, died on Aug. 24 in her home on campus. She was 83.

Kaplan was ombudsperson from 1984 to 1996, and she was instrumental in opening the Stanford Help Center in 1982. She served as director until 1992, and she is credited with developing Stanford’s first set of sexual harassment guidelines as well as being known for her early work in rape education.

In the waning years of her life, Kaplan lived with a chronic deterioration of the cerebellum. But close friends said the disease did not dull her inner vibrancy.

“Her intellect never wavered,” said Dr. Saul Rosenberg, professor emeritus of medicine and radiation oncology. “She was always smiling.”

Her husband, the late Dr. Henry Seymour Kaplan, was a professor of oncology at Stanford Medical Center and chair of the Department of Radiology and Oncology. He died in 1984 and is memorialized through the Henry S. Kaplan–Harry Lebeson Professorship in Cancer Biology. Lebeson died in 1987 and was an industrialist, philanthropist and Leah Kaplan’s father.

Dr. Kaplan recruited Rosenberg into the Department of Radiation Oncology in 1961. Through their close collaboration, not only did they bring prestige to the School of Medicine for their multifaceted approach to treating Hodgkin’s disease but Rosenberg became one of Dr. and Mrs. Kaplan’s closest friends.

When the School of Medicine moved from San Francisco in 1959, the Kaplans built a home on campus, on Cabrillo Street. The house, kitty-corner to the president’s residence, was filled with fine art, as well as members of the Stanford community during the many gatherings they hosted over the years.

“They were always leaders in every aspect,” Rosenberg said. “She and her husband were a remarkable Stanford presence and couple.”

Born on April 23, 1921, in Thomasville, Ga., Leah Kaplan grew up in Chicago and received a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree from the Smith School of Social Work in Massachusetts. She began her career at Stanford in 1964 as a clinical social worker with Counseling and Psychological Services.

From 1974 to 1979, she was assistant dean of student affairs. She began work in the Ombudsman’s Office in 1979 as a special assistant and retired as ombudsperson in 1996, when the position was made full time. For all her efforts in helping students and staff work through their problems, which spanned four university presidencies, Kaplan was honored with the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award in 1980.

Former University President Richard Lyman (1970-80) remembered her fondly and with admiration. In 1993, Lyman spoke about political leadership at the first of five Leah Kaplan Annual Lectures, which were sponsored by Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

“She was a very noteworthy person,” Lyman said last week. “I mostly remember her as a very sympathetic woman who brought out the best in people.”

Daughter Ann Kaplan Spears said her mother once said her boundless compassion came from having been raised by a series of nannies because her own mother died when she was young. Spears said her mother loved chocolate about as much as she loved needling students who waited tables at the old Faculty Club—asking the kids where they came from, what was their major and why they chose Stanford.

“She just loved to connect with people,” said Spears, who lives in Oakland. “She loved to talk to people and find out all about them.”

In addition to Spears, Kaplan is survived by son Paul Kaplan of Menlo Park and two grandsons, Jesse and Nicholas Spears. Leah Kaplan’s sister, Shirley Shenker, lives in Palo Alto with her husband, Henry Shenker, and their two sons Scott and Steve, a physics professor at Stanford.

A service open to friends, family and former colleagues will be held Oct. 9 at the Kaplan home at 4 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Kaplan’s name to the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professorship in Human Rights, c/o Susan Lauenstein, Assistant Director of Development for Stewardship, Stanford Law School, Crown Quadrangle, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, CA 94305-8610.