A few years ago, I received an unexpected call one morning from my late father’s close friend Stephen in Toronto. “I’m at the dealer getting my car serviced and I met someone who says he knows you,” Stephen said. “Hold on, I’ll put him on the phone.”

“Eric, it’s your Uncle Davey. How are you doing in Los Angeles?”

Stephen and my Uncle Davey had never met. As was his practice, Uncle Davey struck up a conversation and wanted to learn more about Stephen and his background. Stephen mentioned he was an accountant before he retired. Uncle Davey noted that his brother-in-law was an accountant and asked if Stephen might have known him.

The mutual connection was established.

Uncle Davey

Striking up conversations with strangers from all walks of life was one of Uncle Davey’s hallmarks. His genuine interest and empathy for people, a demonstrable love for family and friends, an insatiable pursuit of knowledge, an engaging personality, and a belief that one had the power to create a good day were among the many reasons for Uncle Davey’s longevity. Uncle Davey died last week in his Toronto home after a brief illness, days shy of his 99th birthday.

Uncle Davey Kaplansky lived a vibrant life virtually to the moment he died. He played golf well into his 80s, pursued downhill skiing until 83 when he shattered his shoulder, rollerbladed and windsurfed in his 70s, and in his mid-90s commandeered his son’s jet skis on an Ontario lake. He also was a sculptor, a passion he pursued after retiring from dentistry when he was 80.

Underscoring the passion for technology Uncle Davey developed in his later years, he was well known to the Geek Squad folks at the Apple Store in Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Uncle Davey made certain he had Apple’s latest and greatest devices. With Uncle Davey’s passing, Apple lost one of its most devoted Canadian customers.

“A life well lived doesn’t begin to characterize my dad’s amazing journey,” his son Brian recalled at the funeral service. “A life incredibly lived…exceptionally lived…inspirationally lived is closer to the mark.”

Uncle Davey (undated photo)

One learns a lot listening to eulogies, and it wasn’t till the funeral that I learned Uncle Davey’s middle name was Solomon, which was apt because he demonstrated a certain wisdom throughout his life. I’m not sure why my parents referred to him as Davey, perhaps to distinguish him from another family member named Dave, who married my Dad’s eldest sister.

Uncle Davey, who was blessed with movie star good looks, was born in Montreal to Jewish immigrant parents. He grew near St. Urbain, a street made famous by the author Mordechai Richler. I was surprised to learn to learn that Uncle Davey was shy when he was a kid and spoke with a stutter. His family was poor and often didn’t have enough food, but Uncle Davey maintained he never felt he lacked for anything.

Uncle Davey served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. While on leave in Toronto, he spotted and was smitten by my Aunt Jeannette, whose red hair made her stand out. Uncle Davey’s love for Jeannette was always readily apparent. He told Brian that the love he gave and received from Aunt Jeannette was the “juice to his battery.”

Uncle Davey and Aunt Jeannette

Aunt Jeannette moved from her native Toronto to live in Montreal with Uncle Davey, who became a dentist after being released from the military. Many of Uncle Davey’s patients were French Canadian and as he was fluently bilingual, he could speak to them in their native language. According to Brian, Uncle Davey was also known to sing personalized songs to his patients, invariably off key. Apparently, there are some cassettes to validate this claim.

When I lived in Montreal, I saw Uncle Davey for some dental work, and it was a dentistry experience unlike any other. His calming demeanor caused me to relax without the aid of Novocain, and he seemed to have all the time in the world to learn how I was doing. Uncle Davey’s dentistry skills were obvious, and so was the joy he demonstrated administering them. Uncle Davey didn’t view dentistry as a job.

Growing up, Uncle Davey represented to me Montreal’s sophistication and the joie de vivre for which the city’s residents were famous. In the 60s, Montreal was Canada’s major city and decidedly more cosmopolitan than Toronto, which Montrealers openly dismissed as a cow town. People in Montreal dressed more stylishly, the city had better and more diverse restaurants, and its hockey team had some of the game’s still most legendary players.

In a million years, I could never have imagined Uncle Davey living in Toronto.  But after Aunt Jeannette died, Uncle Davey at 80 closed his dental practice, said goodbye to his longtime friends, and moved to Toronto to be closer to his children, Brian and daughter Cathy, who relocated to the city years earlier, and their children.

Uncle Davey center, daughter Cathy (2nd from right), with his California nephews

Relocating to a new city can be challenging at any age, but especially so in the later stages of life. Not for Uncle Davey – he soon had dozens of new friends that he made through his various community, artistic, and cultural pursuits. Within 10 years, he had more Toronto friends than I ever did – and I grew up in that city!

When Uncle Davey turned 90, Brian and Cathy organized a birthday celebration. Cathy told me that her dad had made so many Toronto friends, she hadn’t yet met them all.

“I want to meet my Dad’s friends when he is still alive rather than have them introduce themselves when I’m sitting shiva,” I recall her saying. Sitting shiva is the seven-day mourning ritual traditional Jews observe when a parent dies and family and friends visit to provide comfort.

I’m not certain of the precise number of people who attended the party, but the restaurant where it was held was full. After the meal was served, Uncle Davey got up to speak and ventured around the room to introduce each friend, recounted how he knew that person, and what it was about the person he especially valued. It was understandably a long talk, but I’m certain everyone in attendance is especially grateful these days that Uncle Davey shared his feelings about them.

Uncle Davey & California niece Susan

I was feeling down during one of my last conversations with Uncle Davey, and he shared a practice that he said sustained him all his life. He said every morning he looked in the mirror and declared, “I look good. I feel good. I’m going to have a great day.”

That sounded too hokey for me, even after living in California for nearly a decade. At the funeral Brian mentioned that when he was growing up, he observed Uncle Davey performing the ritual, which means it predated this SNL Stuart Smalley spoof. Listening to Uncle Davey’s positive outlook that day I was certain that if someone overheard our conversation and was asked to guess which person was in their 90s, they would have guessed me.

The Kaplansky apples didn’t fall far from the tree. Cathy and Brian have the same genuine warmth as their parents, as do their spouses, their children, and no doubt so will their grandchildren. Uncle Davey developed close bonds with his four grandchildren and leaves behind four great young grandchildren. Notably, Cathy is married to a dentist and Brian became one.

Uncle Davey was truly bigger than life, and I will miss him. He was the last living member of my father’s immediate family. An entire generation has passed.

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