He was a boxer, an actor, a Navy officer, an IRS commissioner, an influential tax attorney, a University of Virginia law professor for three decades and a prominent benefactor of the university from which he earned two bachelor’s degrees.
Mortimer Caplin, who turned 103 on July 11, died Monday, according to family members.
“My father was a wonderfully kind man, full of zest for everything,” Michael Caplin said. “He believed deeply that everyone has a debt of service to their country, and he lived his life with purpose and a commitment to the common good. I know his spirit will continue to nourish and inspire everyone who knew him.”
“It was an extraordinary privilege to be part of his family and life. He was a truly good man, a man of honor,” said Kari Caplin, Mortimer Caplin’s daughter-in-law. “Most people know Mortimer in relation to his long, exceptional career, but I think of him as the most wonderful grandpa to my children.”
Kari Caplin said her father-in-law was sharp and healthy up to the day he died in his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“Mortimer did everything on his own terms and with style,” she said. “There were no hospitals or invasive medical contraptions, as happens so often. He was a very dignified man in life and death.”
Mortimer Caplin, a UVa law professor emeritus, taught for 33 years at the law school. He also co-founded the influential Washington, D.C., tax law firm Caplin & Drysdale.
Caplin was generous with donations to the university and his name is on the law school’s Caplin Auditorium, Mortimer Caplin Professorship, Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, Mortimer Caplin Public Service Fellowship and Caplin Pavilion.
His late wife’s name adorns the Ruth Caplin Theatre inside UVa’s $13.5 million drama building addition for which the Caplins gave $4 million.
“We wanted to give something to the college and to the community, and the arts are an important part of life and should be enjoyed by all,” Mortimer Caplin told The Daily Progress when ground was broken on the center in 2010. “My wife and I both have a love of the arts — she’s participated in the arts all of her life through painting, sculpting and dance — and we have a great love of [UVa].”
Caplin also spent some time on stage and on the board of directors of several theater groups.
“I was a boxer in college and, in the off-season, I was part of the drama department and was even president of the Virginia Players,” he said in the 2010 interview. “And, for about 30 seconds, I was encouraged to even go to Broadway to apply for a part that involved a violinist who becomes a boxer.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from UVa in 1937, Caplin graduated first in his class from UVa’s law school in 1940, earning his second bachelor’s.
In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a beach master during the 1944 D-Day invasion of France. It was then that he invoked the name of a fictitious Army general to order a cargo ship captain to beach his vessel and provide ammunition to soldiers on Omaha Beach. Afterward, he was transferred to England to serve as a legal officer.
Upon the war’s end, he used the GI Bill to earn his law doctorate from New York University. Caplin, who grew up in New York City, then returned to UVa in 1950 as a law professor. It was there that he taught Robert and Edward Kennedy. He was asked by President John F. Kennedy to serve as the IRS commissioner.
Under his watch, the IRS computerized federal tax returns and focused less on jailing tax scofflaws and more on encouraging compliance. That got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine.
He left the IRS in 1964 and formed the tax law firm with Douglas D. Drysdale, also a UVa graduate.
“Mortimer Caplin was a person and a public servant of the highest ethos,” said Risa Goluboff, dean of UVa’s School of Law. “His contributions to the law school are almost innumerable. He helped make the law school a major player in tax law — a legacy that still flourishes more than 60 years later.”
Caplin was a member of the UVa Board of Visitors and served on the boards of the UVa Law School Foundation and the governing council of UVa’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, among other organizations.
He received the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law, the university’s highest honor, in 2001, the Alexander Hamilton Award for his service to the U.S. Treasury and numerous other awards and honorary degrees.
Caplin’s wife, Ruth Sacks Caplin, died in 2014. Four of his five children — sons Lee, Michael and Jeremy and daughter Cate — survive him. A second daughter, Mary Ellen, passed away in 1977.