Celebratio Mathematica

Irving Kaplansky

Kap was my father

by Lucy Kaplansky

My dad, Irving Ka­plansky, was a math­em­atician, but he was also a teach­er, and he taught me many things. When I was a little girl he taught me to play check­ers. In our games to­geth­er he would start with half his check­ers, and he’d beat me any­way. But whenev­er I played check­ers with oth­er kids, I de­mol­ished them. He got a huge kick out of that.

He taught me math. I would come home from school when I was in grade school and high school and he would re-teach me that day’s math les­son. He was al­ways pa­tient and clear, and he made it all make sense. I’d go back to school the next day, and of­ten I was the only one who would un­der­stand what was go­ing on in math class.

I ran in­to a couple of my math teach­ers from grade school re­cently and they told me when they found out I was in their classes they were pet­ri­fied be­cause they knew ex­actly who my dad was!

My dad taught me to be or­gan­ized in everything, re­li­able, and punc­tu­al. I think I’m the only mu­si­cian I know who al­ways shows up on time and ac­tu­ally does what I say I’m go­ing to do.

He taught me that I should love what I do for a liv­ing. Throughout my child­hood he would sit in his study, clas­sic­al mu­sic al­ways on the ra­dio, do­ing math. Some­times he’d look like he was do­ing noth­ing, maybe even sleep­ing, but he’d al­ways say he was “think­ing math­em­at­ics”. He in­stilled in me one of the cent­ral ideas that has in­formed my life, that mak­ing money for money’s sake was not im­port­ant, that do­ing work you love is everything.

I asked him once why he loved math. He re­spon­ded simply “it’s beau­ti­ful.”

He taught me that learn­ing was fun. He es­pe­cially loved learn­ing about his­tory and he was forever read­ing about and dis­cuss­ing his­tory, all kinds. Be­cause of him, I, too, love to learn about his­tory; be­cause of him I love to learn, peri­od.

And per­haps most of all he taught me to love mu­sic. He was a gif­ted pi­an­ist, and there’s a story I’ve heard my whole life that when he was three years old he and his fam­ily at­ten­ded a Yid­dish mu­sic­al in Toronto, and when they got home he sat down at the pi­ano and played the show’s main song per­fectly, note for note. From as early as I can re­mem­ber I would sing while he played the pi­ano. He taught me dozens of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as from Gil­bert and Sul­li­van oper­et­tas. I still re­mem­ber most of these songs.

When I was older and pur­sued a ca­reer as a sing­er-song­writer, I star­ted per­form­ing songs that he had writ­ten; one of the most pop­u­lar was “A Song About Pi”. To this day it’s one of my most re­ques­ted songs.

When my dad was already in his eighties, my par­ents of­ten went on the road with me when I was do­ing con­certs. We’d all get in the car and stay in ho­tels, and he would sell my CDs for me after the show, some­times he was even asked for auto­graphs. And if there was a pi­ano on stage he would ac­com­pany me on a couple of his songs. He al­ways brought down the house. I’m so grate­ful we were able to share this. The last time he sat in with me on­stage he was 88 years old. I’ve heard from so many of my dad’s stu­dents over the years what a won­der­ful teach­er he was. I know that. He was my teach­er.