As a 9-year-old working at his father’s tool plant, Ken Kaplan earned 9 cents an hour cutting handles for screwdrivers.
Years later, after serving as a sharpshooter in the Korean War and earning a master’s degree in business at the University of Minnesota, the Owatonna native returned to his hometown and, with his father, uncles and brother Buzz, helped build the family business — Owatonna Tool Co. — into a thriving international firm.
“He was passionate about anything he did, be it at work, for the community or just for fun,” said Dean Shankland, a co-worker and longtime friend. “Whatever he got involved in, he tried to do it to the absolute best of his ability. And anything was possible.”
Kaplan, a longtime vice president of Owatonna Tool, died Feb. 11 of ALS. He was 80.
The son of the man who founded the company and invented the universal gear puller, Kaplan was generous with his time and money. He donated thousands of hours and dollars to fraternal, civic and business organizations, from the Shriners to Ducks Unlimited to the Steele County Historical Society to the Owatonna Figure Skating Club.
In the early 1970s, he purchased the land to develop a municipal golf course.
A decade later, when the locally owned J-C Press, a printing and office supply company, struggled to survive, Kaplan recruited local business leaders to deliver financial support and business expertise. The company workforce has since doubled, and revenue is five times what it was in the early ’80s.
“Ken was totally responsible for that,” said Sabra Otteson, the company president. “And I feel so lucky to this day that he did it. All my employees and their families will be eternally grateful.”
When the country club flirted with bankruptcy, Kaplan helped see to it that the clubhouse and much of the course was rebuilt.
“He said, ‘This is too important to lose,’ ” said Lisa Huntley, the oldest of Kaplan’s four daughters.
When he wasn’t tending to civic or business matters, Kaplan often headed outdoors to fly, fish, scuba dive, ski or sky dive. He shot his first deer at 11 and never missed a hunt after that. Too weak to sit in a stand last fall, he still made the trek to a northern Minnesota cabin with grandsons and cousins to be close to the hunt. Weeks before, he took to the fields near Grinnell, Iowa, to hunt pheasants.
“He could barely stand up,” Huntley said. “But he still got the first and the most.”
He was an exceptional shot, Shankland said. While vacationing in Wyoming, he signed up for a competition on a whim and won.
“He didn’t miss much. It’d be tough to find somebody better,” Shankland said.
He could be mischievous, too, and loved a good prank. An avid golfer whose yard overlooked the local municipal course, Kaplan often took delight in chipping a ball onto a nearby green when he spotted friends playing a round. When his unsuspecting pals got to the green and saw a ball close to the hole, “they’d want to claim the ball was theirs,” Huntley said. “He was always watching to see how they would react. He liked to stir the pot a little bit.”
In later years, after his wife, Jean, became a paraplegic in an airplane crash, Kaplan tended to her daily, making sure her injury didn’t keep her from her passions — piano, violin, horseback riding, swimming and snorkeling.
“He cared for her every day until her passing three years ago,” Huntley said. “He really was devoted to her. He never, ever faltered.”
In addition to Huntley, Kaplan is survived by daughters Tamera Kaplan, Krista Kaplan and Jean Thornton and seven grandchildren.
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