Friends, colleagues remember ETSU management professor who died of breakthrough COVID-19 case as ‘amazing person’

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Ricki Kaplan’s friends say ‘this shouldn’t have happened’

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – An East Tennessee State University management professor who was fully vaccinated died of COVID-19 Friday, more than a month after falling ill.

Ricki Kaplan was remembered Monday by colleagues at ETSU and fellow worshipers at the B’nai Sholom Congregation in Bristol as warm, kind, and concerned with the welfare of others.

Ricki Kaplan (Courtesy ETSU)

“We’re all walking around saying ‘this shouldn’t have happened,'” B’nai Sholom officer Rhona Hurwitz said.

Kaplan was a member of the small, tight-knit congregation’s board of directors. Hurwitz met her about three decades ago when both found themselves joining the synagogue after moving to the area.

The two have seen the congregation get smaller over the years — sometimes as older members have died, other times when people have moved away.

But Hurwitz said Kaplan was a dynamo when it came to service. 

“Ricki has been involved in all of our bar and bat mitzvahs since I can remember,” she said. 

Kaplan was “the pretzel lady,” Hurwitz added. 

“Whatever your color theme was for your bar mitzvah, she would make pretzels in those colors. Pretzel sticks dipped and with (sprinkles), the whole nine yards. She’d always say ‘I have to go home and make pretzel sticks.’ Ricki and pretzel sticks for bar mitzvahs were a thing.” 

Hurwitz, a retired ETSU professor herself, said Kaplan was quite the cook.

“She cooked in our kitchen all the time,” Hurwitz said. “She was our social chair. So whenever we had any kind of celebration that involved food, and most of our celebrations do, (if) it was the collation after Rosh Hashanah services, it was the break the fast after Yom Kippur, it was the seder during Passover, it was the meal welcoming new members that we did every spring, she coordinated all of that. She did the shopping, she did the cooking with a couple of others of us who could show up.”  

“You know, she was just always, always there.” 

Jewish faith doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, and Hurwitz has endured the deaths of several fellow B’nai Sholom members through the years. But she said this is different. 

Rhona Hurwitz, one of Kaplan’s close friends.

“This is a death that never should have happened,” Hurwitz said. This is a death that really hit our community very hard because she wore so many hats in our congregation.” 

It also hit the ETSU community hard.

Al Spritzer was just ending a long stint as dean of ETSU’s College of Business when Kaplan earned her MBA there in 1999. He saw her rise from being an adjunct to becoming a full-time lecturer.

Spritzer, who retired recently, remembers Kaplan being willing to teach just about any class and being “very, very much a cooperative, warm colleague.”

“When others had their own health issues, she would cook some chicken soup and show her interest and her concern for others,” Spritzer said.

Spritzer was part of a group that received emails updating them on Kaplan’s condition after she became ill. He said a close co-worker, Karen Tarnoff, was receiving updates from Kaplan’s sister and sharing those.

“Early on one of those emails asked us to pray for her — that it was serious,” Spritzer said.

But last Friday, a little more than a month after her hospitalization, the email update delivered the worst possible news.

That news was about someone fellow B’nai Sholom member Nancy Fischman called “an amazing person.”

“She just put herself out for other people,” Fischman said.

Fischman said Kaplan loved children and babies.

“Anybody who came to the synagogue service with a baby she’d be carrying it around,” Fischman said with a laugh.

Hurwitz agreed.

“I recall her carrying fussy babies around during services so that they wouldn’t cry and distract other people,” she said.

This year, a boy from the synagogue went through his bar mitzvah in April and it was a special moment for Kaplan, Hurwitz said.  

“She said she was so happy to be president of sisterhood to give him the sisterhood present because she had carried him around as a baby and had seen him grow for 13 years.” 

Fischman said the congregation celebrates each year at the end of a 24-hour fast during Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holidays.

“She wound up being the organizer for that lately, she stepped up and was president of the sisterhood, and she was on the financial committee and was helping with our investments.”

Fischman said the congregation and Kaplan’s many other friends and colleagues endured an agonizing period of uncertainty.

“I knew she had been in the hospital for a long time, and she was well enough for the second day of Rosh Hashanah to Zoom in to services from the hospital on that day,” she said. “She didn’t have her camera on but everyone said hey it’s good to see you here.”

“So we thought she was recovering, and then the next day or the day after that she was put on a ventilator.”

Fischman said the congregation got mixed reports after Kaplan was intubated. At one point, someone – Fischman thinks they were from the medical team – said “she’s doing fine for the situation she’s in, and then two days later she was gone.”

Hurwitz is part of a group of four women from the synagogue who all have birthdays between Aug. 17 and Aug. 25. Hers is the 21st. Kaplan, 15 years younger, turned 56 on Aug. 18.

Ricki Kaplan pictured far right with friends, from left, Rhona Hurwitz, Greg Goldstein, Marisol Spiegel and Marilyn Goldstein.

“We were all good friends in the synagogue and we would try to have a joint birthday celebration dinner.” 

Four days after her 56th, Kaplan was in the hospital, and Hurwitz admits to feeling some frustration about it all.

“The reaction has been, it never should have happened,” she said. “She was vaccinated, she wore a mask all the time. She had hand sanitizer in her car. She took all the precautions that you could take…”

Hurwitz said while she never let it slow her down, Kaplan suffered from a couple of conditions that left her immunocompromised. Still, she said she wasn’t initially too worried when her friend got a breakthrough case.

“I kept thinking, she’ll come out of it, she’ll come out of it. But the longer she stayed in the hospital, and I talked to her on the phone a couple of times and she just had no breath to speak. And I would say, ‘Ricki, get some rest. We can text. You don’t need to talk in person. Please get some rest.’” 

She thinks her friend would have some choice words for people who have continued to resist getting vaccinated.

“She would tell them to get off their butts and get a vaccination. I know she would and she would not say ‘butts.’” 

Fischman said the reality of seeing another vaccinated person die from COVID is scary. She said Kaplan was young and to her knowledge didn’t have other medical problems.

“Once she got put on the vent I was worried that she wouldn’t make it out of the hospital, but it still was a shock.”

Fischman certainly thinks Kaplan would urge people to get vaccinated and to be careful about COVID-19, but she also thinks she’d have another bit of advice.

“Don’t isolate yourself so much that you lose contact with people and lose your ability to help other people. She’s just that kind of person.”

Despite her generally positive outlook on life, Hurwitz — who said Kaplan had grocery shopped for her often during the pandemic as she, too, is immunocompromised — said she’s developed some real issues with the current situation as it relates to vaccines and mitigation efforts.

“It is a situation that is perpetrated by people who are being extraordinarily selfish, who don’t care about others and the effect they’re having on other people,” Hurwitz said.

“I am extremely frustrated. I have no sense of trust when I see someone without a mask who is supposedly vaccinated and therefore doesn’t have to wear one.” 

The following is a portion of a statement released Monday by ETSU:

The ETSU community is deeply saddened by the loss of Ricki Kaplan, Senior Lecturer in the College of Business and Technology’s Department of Management and Marketing, who passed away on Friday, September 24.

Ricki was an ETSU graduate and served as adjunct faculty member before joining the university faculty in January 2007.

“She loved her students,” said Dr. Karen Tarnoff, Associate Dean of Business and Technology and a colleague of Ricki’s.  “She demanded the best from them…because she wanted the best for them.”

Ricki was active with the CBAT Communications Lab that provided assistance to students needing help with presentations and other projects.   “Ricki made sure students got the help they needed,” Karen said.  “She trained the tutors and would even cook for them a few times each semester.  She did it because that was the type of person she was.”

Jim Harlan, Interim Chair of Management and Marketing, echoed that observation.

“Ricki was the best of us,” he said.  “Her intellect, her heart, and her passion for students have forever changed lives.  She was the first to care and the last to leave anytime someone was in need.  We miss her.”

“Anytime a job needed to be done, she was the first person there,” Karen added.

Colleagues say one of Ricki’s greatest legacies was her work with international students.  She worked very closely to support ETSU’s international articulation with Shandong Normal University in Jinan.  In addition to traveling there, she facilitated arrangements for ETSU faculty to teach there and she actively recruited many students to come to ETSU.  On the ETSU campus, she helped coordinate the international student seminar that all CBAT international students are required to take.

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