Remembering Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan, 1919–2009
By all accounts, Stanley H. Kaplan was an unusual child. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1920s, he preferred homework to stickball. By the age of 9, he'd begun paying dimes to lagging classmates for the pleasure of tutoring them in fractions. "There was no greater thrill than watching a student's face at that moment of revelation when he finally grasped an idea," Kaplan recalled. "Witnessing that was like hitting a home run and rounding the bases to the sound of a cheering crowd."

Kaplan, who died last week at 90, did not lack for cheering during a career in which he established himself as America's foremost tutor. Starting in his parents' basement in the 1930s, he initially provided instruction in the three Rs; only a decade later, when a student asked for help prepping for an exam called the SAT, were the seeds of an empire planted. Kaplan spent long nights devising practice SAT questions and finding entertaining ways to teach the Pythagorean theorem. In 1970 he opened his first center outside New York City, and five years later he had storefronts in 23 cities.

Today SAT prep courses are often viewed as a pricey tool that gives an advantage to upper-middle-class kids in the admissions arms race, but for decades Kaplan's clientele was striving ethnic New Yorkers who hoped higher scores might put them on par with WASPy prep-schoolers and Ivy League legacies. "He challenged society with the notion of meritocracy," said Andy Rosen, Kaplan's current CEO, in his eulogy last week. "It was his belief that talent—not heritage, wealth, privilege, or social -status—should prevail." The writer Nicholas Lemann reached the same conclusion in The Big Test, his history of the SAT: Kaplan "was helping hundreds of kids go to fine colleges and enter professions that had been barred to them."

In 1984 Kaplan sold his business to The Washington Post Company, which owns NEWSWEEK, and began devoting much of his time to philanthropy. Meanwhile, his company has evolved. Last year test prep accounted for just one quarter of Kaplan's $2.3 billion in revenue; today the company earns bigger profits offering college and graduate coursework to working adults. And while Stanley Kaplan's students will remain his primary legacy, at the Post Company he leaves an important financial legacy as well: Kaplan now provides more than half its parent company's revenues, providing a crucial counterweight as traditional media businesses have sagged. In that way, a generation of writers (and readers) who've moved far beyond the challenges of Pythagoras owe Kaplan their own special debt.

Dominick Dunne, 1925–2009
At 50, after a failed marriage, a drug arrest, an aborted career as a movie producer, and a self-imposed detox in a cabin in Oregon, Dominick Dunne reinvented himself as a writer who examined the dynamic between the moneyed elite and the criminal-justice system, a world he came to know intimately.

In 1982, an ex-boyfriend killed Dunne's 22-year-old daughter. The killer's three-year jail term (for manslaughter) prompted a lifelong outrage, and in his writing, his television programs, and his personal life, Dunne was a tireless, and unabashed, advocate for victims' families. His account of the trial was his first piece for Vanity Fair, where he spent 25 years as a columnist and correspondent, covering the trials of O. J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, and William Kennedy Smith. By his own account he was a name-dropper, with a regular table at Michael's, where, even in ill health, he continued to hold court, as meticulously dressed as ever. —Jesse Ellison

William Emerson Jr., 1923–2009
He was 6 feet 3, a spirited southern raconteur, and, from 1953 to 1961, NEWSWEEK's Atlanta bureau chief—the first to hold the post. There he covered the civil-rights movement—the Montgomery bus boycotts, school integration, the KKK—and covered them as only a Southerner could, with one eye on his own evolution in the context of the South's upheaval.

Later Emerson went to New York, where he worked as an editor at NEWSWEEK and was eventually named Editor In Chief of The Saturday Evening Post. His skill as a storyteller was legendary, and it's a testimony to this talent that, even though the days of martini lunches have long since passed, at least one colorful quote lives on. "New York is the greatest city in the world of lunch," he once wrote in a NEWSWEEK My Turn. "This is the gregarious time. And, when that first martini hits the liver like a silver bullet, there is a sigh of contentment that can be heard in Dubuque." —Jesse Ellison

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