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Defending Rights & Dissent has lost a champion. Woody Kaplan, who died at his home surrounded by loved ones, in Boston on August 3, 2023.
Over the decades, Woody’s impact on DRAD has been immeasurable. He loved our mission, and it loved him back. I’ll miss Woody beyond words. He was my champion and mentor. We enjoyed working together, and neither I, nor this organization, could have managed without him for the past twenty years.
Woody was elected to our board of directors in 2002, but he was deeply involved in our work for many years before that. He was drawn to the history of the organization (founded in 1960 as NCAHUAC – the National Committee to Abolish the House UnAmerican Activities Committee), and, in particular, our unflinching dedication to the principle of free speech – no matter who is talking.
Woody was elected Board President 2005. As President, Woody guided the organization through several momentous changes, including the death of our founder and director emeritus, Frank Wilkinson in 2006, and a reorganization and name-change in 2007, and the departure of Kit Gage who had served first as our Washington Office Director from 1987, and then as National Director since 1992. Woody led the search committee to find a new Director, hiring me in 2007.
In 2015, Woody managed a transformative organizational transition, the merger of Defending Dissent Foundation with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Upon the merger of the two organizations, Woody became co-President with Sascha Meinrath. The two worked together to consolidate the two boards of directors, and launch the new organization with our new name: Defending Rights & Dissent.
“Woody was a true mensch: bluntly honest, a wealth of historical information, a consummate advocate and networker, and one of the most warm and generous people I have ever met. His integrity, insightfulness, and positivity in the face of overwhelming odds, were profoundly impactful to everyone lucky enough to work with him. We have lost a champion for civil liberties with Woody’s passing – he will be greatly missed.”
– Sascha Meinrath
In 2017, Woody became President Emeritus, remaining on the board, rarely if ever missing a meeting until he resigned from the board in July, three weeks before his death.
Woody led the organization for two decades, and through some pretty choppy waters, always with grace, wisdom, and his warm sense of humor. When I spoke to Kit Gage about Woody, her response was, “I do think so fondly, and with a smile, of Woody. He was both incorrigible and irascible.”
Woody’s political roots were in the civil rights and anti-war movements. In 1962, he went to Mississippi to register voters, in 1968, he was an aide to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. He was an anti-war activist, fought for LGBT rights, and campaigned to end the death penalty. But dearest to his heart was the First Amendment, particularly protecting the right to political dissent, and ensuring the separation of church and state (he was active with the American Humanist Association, Secular Coalition, and the Center for Inquiry). Despite his lefty origins, Woody firmly believed that civil liberties, particularly free speech, is a transpartisan issue. He loved messing with politics, mentoring lots of mostly younger activists/lobbyists, and actively promoting and donating to politicians who shared his ideals.
“As an immigrant fighting government institutions to guard the rights of my fellow Americans, I saw Woody Kaplan as the epitome of American-ship. He exemplified the roles of entrepreneur, philanthropist, and citizen by not only funding work in the public interest, but rolling up his sleeves and committing no end of time and energy himself in advocating for basic constitutional rights ignored by most elected leaders and too many judges. Beyond his commitment to principles that we shared, I also encountered Woody as a thoughtful and kind person whose generosity—not only with resources, but also presence, and time—knew no bounds. He will be sorely missed, and will continue to serve as an example for others, including me.”
– Shahid Buttar
In my last conversation with Woody, we discussed how he wanted to be remembered. He insisted it wasn’t about him, but about the work and the mission of the organization. He did have one regret though: “we never got Hoover’s name off the FBI building.” Woody thought the best way to do this was with a hammer and chisel. That would have been the most fun, but we can also pass H.R. 1175: a bill to strip Hoover’s name off FBI headquarters. Please send an email to your Representative in honor of Woody!
Woody’s life partner and wife, Wendy Kaminer shared his passion for civil liberties, she served on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee for several years before our two organizations merged. We look forward to working with Wendy to build on Woody’s legacy to ensure the right to political dissent.