Farewell to a friend
Marvin Caplan was big and bright and loud, and his ties were as bold as his opinions
Now, when the phone rings at night, I flinch at little. It’s usually not a good thing. I answered and it was my friend Wade on the line. I could tell by his voice that something was wrong.
“I have some sad news,” he said. “One of our good friends has died. It’s Marvin.” Marvin Caplan. I was not surprised — Marvin had had health troubles over the years — but I was shocked as you always are, to hear the words. Heart attack. He was 75. We talked, reminisced about our friend and then, when there wasn’t much more to say, we signed off.
Over the next few days I found myself thinking about Marvin. I had known him a long time — more than 30 years. I had interviewed him as a clothier — the owner of Marvin Caplan’s Gentleman’s Apparel, then as a social justice activist, and finally as a member of city council for three terms. Over those years, I had come to know him, to respect him and to eventually, I’m happy to say, become his friend.
Here’s the thing about Marvin: you either liked him or you didn’t. There wasn’t much in the middle. And you knew whether you liked him or not right away. I did. He was very smart and brash and some- times bawdy. He made me laugh. He was also kind and generous, a natural teacher who spent countless hours talking to me about fashion and retailing, subjects in which he was an expert. He had trained under his mentor Harry Rosen, and in Hamilton, at least, he had bested him, his store outlasting Rosen’s short-lived foray into the city.
Back then, I was young with tastes far beyond my paycheque, and when I shopped at his store (usually on sale) Marvin always treated me like I was his best customer.
He was a whirlwind in the shop and the best advertisement for his own clothes. He was usually dressed in a custom, doublebreasted suit, with a colourful tie and striking pocket square, a tailor ’s tape measure draped around his neck. He was a big man and always seemed to be pushing the capacity of his clothes, his suit pockets bulging with his glasses and wallet and pens and (sometimes) candies. Outside the shop, it was Marvin who would show up at an event in a mint green sports jacket or a striped British boating blazer. His clothes reflected his nature. He was big and bright and loud, and his ties were as bold as his opinions and you could like them or not like them, but you couldn’t ignore them.
Though he was passionate about retail, he was more passionate about the city and most passionate about his wife Judi and their remarkable four boys. And his faith. It was Marvin who enthusiastically explained Jewish customs and holidays to me, inviting me to his backyard and my first Succoth, carefully taking the time to school a Catholic boy in the rich traditions of Judaism. Marvin, always proud, always the teacher.
And like most men who are bigger than life, he was not without his flaws, and he knew it. His reach sometimes exceeded his grasp. And though he was wise enough to seek counsel from his friends, he was not always wise enough to take it. He called me on two occasions to ask my advice, which I felt flattered to give. And, on both occasions, he ignored it. That was Marvin.
He blustered and boasted, to be sure, but he was thoughtful and kind. A man with a large heart. One day at his famous Boxing Day Sale, I picked up a shirt I liked and showed it to him. “You don’t want that shirt,” he said, taking it from me and throwing it back on the table. A while later, I asked him again. “Trust me,” he said. “Don’t buy that shirt.” I didn’t. A week later, I unwrapped a birthday present from my wife — the very same shirt — and I smiled. She had bought it before the big sale and he had remembered. That was Marvin, too. The last time I saw him, he was dancing with some children at the bar mitzvah, redfaced and sweating, whirling them around, laughing, living with gusto and joy and love.
I will miss him.