Community celebrates the life of Walt Kaplin

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Memorial event set for Dec. 12 at Griot’s Garage

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

On Sept. 15, 2019, Walt Kaplin passed away peacefully in his home. Known far and wide as a classic car enthusiast, baseball aficionado and music lover, to name just a few of his interests, Walt touched the lives of countless people in the Tacoma area and beyond. 

Walt was born and educated in Tacoma, graduating from Stadium High School, and completed his formal education in California. In 1957, he went to work for Nordstrom and became a buyer in the women’s shoe department. It was there that he met the love of his life, Joanie Park Kaplin, and the two later married. After 54 years together, Joanie passed away on Aug. 17, 2015.

In 1966, Walt went to work for Investors Diversified Services (IDS), the largest mutual fund company in the world in those days. In 1970, he was approached by Equitable Life of Iowa to head up their investment department and became their director of equities in addition to training supervisor. In 1972, the company sent Walt and family to Sacramento where he managed the Sacramento office and oversaw the Fresno, Walnut Creek and San Jose offices. The family returned to the Northwest in 1979. 

Walt and Joanie were very active in the vintage car scene and founded the Washington State Hot Rod Hall of Fame in 1986. They were associated with car shows at the Tacoma Dome and fairgrounds at Puyallup, Lynden, Monroe and Thurston County, in addition to shows at other Tacoma and Gig Harbor venues. For 10 years he and Joanie put on the Family Affair Car Show at Dacca Park in Fife.

Walt loved cars, here with one of his most beloved.

Mario Lorenz, manager of the South Tacoma Business District Association, worked directly with Walt to bring a car show to the Hilltop Street Fair.

“I had just become manager of the Hilltop Business Association and was beginning to think about producing a street fair,” as Mario tells it. “It was about that time in 2012 that Walt’s good friend Bill Connolly introduced me to Walt. Walt was a pretty good talker and, as I recall, he spent most of the time talking about Busch’s Drive-in, Griot’s Garage, car shows, his wife Joanie, and Jackie Robinson. 

“Well, he talked me into putting a car show into the first Hilltop Street Fair in August 2014. Walt had a listing of all the car shows in the country (the Northwest Automotive Event Calendar)and he said that for a few bucks he could get me listed in this publication, and it would have a huge impact on the success of the car show.”

At last year’s Hilltop Street Fair, 160 vehicles participated in the car show.

“I know Walt was not perfect, and he could drive you nuts sometimes with his talk and wild ideas, but Walt had a great deal of faith and always felt that anything could be done if you just had the will to do it,” Mario said. 

Walt’s background provided him an opportunity to be involved and participate at a very young age in local and regional sports. He loved baseball with a passion and held Jackie Robinson as his personal hero and inspiration. What is noteworthy is that Walt came from the era of the 1950s, when open racial discrimination was rampant, but he never felt that way about African-Americans or any racial group. 

“Even before Jackie Robinson was a big star, he was Walt’s mentor,” said Bill Connolly, a friend of Walt’s since childhood. “Waltwas ahead of his time and he took a lot of heat for it, especially from his friends.” 

Bill, then 11 years old, met Walt when Walt was a little league coach at 14 years old. “He was the only kid coach anywhere, and that was the second year that there was little league in Tacoma (1951). He was the spitting image of Lou Piniella. At 14 years old, he gave the umpires and opposing coaches everything they could handle. He’d throw the bases and carry on…,” Bill said with a laugh.  

Walt’s team won the championship and he was voted coach of the year. “This was really upsetting to the adult coaches because Walt was so aggressive and knowledgeable about baseball. He was like an encyclopedia,” Bill said.

Walt treasured his memories of Busch’s Drive-In on South Tacoma Way. In 1955 it was known as the “Cruising Capital of the Pacific Northwest,” and was a second home for thousands of Tacoma teenagers who would spend weekend nights there, cruising around in their cars listening to the special music of that time playing through car radios like a scene straight out of “American Graffiti.” In 2018, Walt and Joanie organized a 75thBusch’s Drive-In reunion at Griot’s Garage, and theparking lot that day was full of rare, classic, antique, dragsters, hot rods, rat rods, street rods and vintage vehicles.

Walt loved music as well, all kinds, and spent the latter years of his life visiting nursing homes to play songs from the tens of thousands of tunes on his playlist, from the Big Band era to the modern day. He delighted in bringing joy to seniors at Merrill Gardens Senior Living, theTacoma Lutheran Retirement Community and the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, thoroughly enjoying watching them dance like they were young again. In 2017, Walt took things a step further by going to Olympia to officially form a limited liability corporation MY MUSIC THERAPY, LLC. The theme for his company: “Music for the children and grandchildren of the greatest generation – You!”

As this reporter was a good friend of Walt’s, I will very much miss his visits to the Tacoma Weekly offices. He would just show up a couple times a week, sit down for a while and always had some new idea or observation to share, good-naturedly chatting about everything from politics to vintage automobiles. He was one of the nicest guys I ever met and one whom I will always remember with much fondness and a smile.

There will be a memorial celebration for Walt on Dec. 12 from 12-2 p.m. at Griot’s Garage, 3333 S. 38thSt., Tacoma. For those that can help defray expenses, please contribute at www.gofundme.com/f/memorial-walt-kaplin

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