Sheldon Kaplan, 96, dies; was Vikings attorney

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2011 - 7:12 AM

Widely respected, he had a hand in Minnesota Vikings' history. And he never retired.

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Sheldon Kaplan, who died last week at age 96, served as the Minnesota Vikings' team attorney for years, as well as on its board. Here he attended a game with his wife, Helene.

Photo: Courtesy of the Kaplan family,

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Sheldon Kaplan, a longtime Minneapolis attorney whose firm hand and quiet manner guided many influential business deals, died of cancer last Tuesday at his Minneapolis home. He was 96, and had worked right up until a few months ago, when he'd begun chemotherapy, relatives and friends said.

"Sheldon had an amazing capacity to make things happen," said Ralph Strangis, his longtime law partner at Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan in Minneapolis. "He could cut through the noise, get to the heart of a problem. And his mind was clear and sharp right up to the end."

Kaplan was born in Minneapolis and grew up on Washburn Avenue N. He graduated from North High School in 1932, from the University of Minnesota in 1935 and Columbia Law School in New York City in 1939.

While at the U, he was expelled briefly for refusing to participate in what was then compulsory military training, triggering protests until he was reinstated and the rules were changed, family members said. That event was chronicled by Eric Severeid in his 1946 book "Not So Wild a Dream."

In 1940, while working in Manhattan, Kaplan met his future wife, Helene, a writer whose first impression of him, she said, was that he was "a really cute guy in an ugly green suit with green eyes to match." They were married in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Dec. 7, 1941 - Pearl Harbor Day.

Helene's family "had been so busy preparing that we hadn't heard the news," she said. "When we got to the synagogue, everyone was sitting in their cars glued to their radios. Sheldon's face was white, and the rabbi was crying. At the reception, people came up to us and said, 'Congratulations ... and what a pity!'"

During World War II, Kaplan served as an Army police captain, overseeing the relocation of prisoners of war from North Africa to U.S. facilities.

After the war, he practiced law out East for a time, returning to Minneapolis in 1946 to form Kaplan, Edelman and Kaplan with his brother, Sidney, a prosecuting attorney in the Nuremberg trials. That firm later merged with another to form Maslon Kaplan Edelman Borman & Brand, where he practiced until 1980. He then became chairman of Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan, where he worked for the rest of his life.

Kaplan "combined great accomplishment with no arrogance," Strangis said. "He had a calm demeanor and was very patient and practical, very good at dealing with people, even on the other side" of a case.

In 1960, Kaplan was a key player in landing a Minnesota Vikings franchise in the National Football League, said Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman. "Sheldon was a peacemaker" working with a tumultuous board, and in a dramatic meeting that ran from 6 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. one night, he and others, including Hartman and Sam Kaplan (no relation and now ambassador to Morocco), persuaded the Vikings to go with the NFL rather than the American Football League. "Sheldon was a quiet, low-key guy who had everyone's confidence," Hartman said.

A seat on Vikings board

In 1977, Kaplan, who served as the team's general counsel for decades, himself took a seat on the Vikings board.

When not working, he loved fishing, whether on Lake Minnetonka or farflung waters, especially Lake Nueltin near the Arctic Circle, his wife said.

She described her husband of 70 years as "a thinking man, a very private person, but one who also dearly loved his friends."

Said Strangis of Kaplan's professional legacy: "Sheldon was a mentor to the 10 lawyers at our firm. We'll strive to continue to practice law well and honorably, as he taught us."

In addition to his wife, Kaplan is survived by two sons, Jay Kaplan, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Jeffrey Kaplan of Nashville; two daughters, Mary Jo Kaplan, of New York City, and Jeanne Burton, of San Diego; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Friends will gather at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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