In Memoriam: Woody Kaplan, “Provocateur”

Woody Kaplan speaks at the 73rd Annual AHA Conference in Philadelphia, PA on June 6, 2014. (Photo by Lisa Zangerl)

The humanist and atheist movement lost an important and dedicated leader with the death of Woody Kaplan last week.

Woody was an advisor and generous financial supporter to many organizations in our movement. I first met Woody as a new staffer with the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) in 2005. Woody was instrumental in raising the initial funds to hire staff for SCA. I was brought on to provide administrative and research support to the founding director, Lori Lipman Brown, who was hired just a few weeks prior. Woody helped create SCA along side Herb Silverman in 2002, and Woody was a key advisor, fundraiser, and financial supporter of SCA until his death.

Through Woody’s relationships with Representatives, Senators, and a variety of political committees, he opened doors to SCA that no one else could at the time. Just saying, “I’m a friend of Woody” at a political event (which he provided the ticket) would bring a smile to an elected official’s face, a story about Woody, and provide the opportunity to promote the policy issue of the day. Even members of Congress who were hesitant to be associated with humanists and atheists would, because of Woody, politely listen to our policy requests. I remember approaching a mid-western Senator that I had met just briefly once before to introduce myself, she cut me off saying, “Oh, I know who you are!” and we chatted amiably about several topics.

Becoming a friend and admirer of Woody was easy, but he could also be trying. For example, because of his experience and relationships with elected officials, Woody was very outspoken during SCA discussions on strategy and policy; however, to his credit, as he saw the competency of staff and other volunteer leaders, he became more and more collaborative. The increase in his colleagues’ competency was due, in part, to his tremendous interest and devotion of time in mentoring staff and volunteer leaders.

I was pleased to continue to work with Woody in my current position as the political and PAC coordinator of the Center for Freethought Equality, the political and advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association, and our affiliated political action committee (PAC). Woody was an advisor and continued to help build relationships with elected officials and candidates. Woody was very proud of our advances in finding and supporting candidates and elected officials who publicly identify with the humanist and atheist community, and praised us when we helped Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) publicly identify with our community and in the formation of the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

In addition to his work with humanist and atheist organizations, Woody was a former member of the ACLU’s National Board of Directors, founder of the Civil Liberties List (a PAC), and a board member and president emeritus of the Defending Dissent Foundation. The Defending Dissent Foundation, originally the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, was formed by Frank Wilkinson in 1960. Woody was drawn to this organization because Wilkinson refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This caused Wilkinson to be cited for contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. The truly un-American HUAC was finally abolished in 1975. The fight to protect civil liberties and political expression continues and Woody was an important and passionate leader in this effort.

For example, Woody liked to talk about working with Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), a World War II veteran, on preventing the passage of a flag burning amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This legislation frequently passed the House with the necessary two-thirds vote, but was consistently halted in the Senate – once by just one vote. Because of the alleged “patriotism” associated with this bill, voting against it took political courage, which is too often lacking. Woody inspired courage, and fortunately, with strong allies of proven patriots like Lautenberg, political expression was protected.

Many of Woody’s initial contacts with elected officials came with his donations to campaigns; however, these contacts grew into strong personal relationships because of Woody’s charm and enthusiasm for political activism. If you want to see the magnitude and staggering number of Woody’s campaign donations, take an hour or two to browse through his entries at the Federal Election Commission (

In his donations to candidates, PACs, and committees, Woody listed his occupation as “Provocateur.” This word definitely sums up Woody. He was the person who incited others to action, and we cannot thank him enough for dedicating his life to this important occupation.

Last, as the consummate fundraiser for the humanist and atheist movement, Woody would have insisted that this message include a fundraising pitch. As Congressman Jared Huffman stated, “Woody was a trusted friend, great supporter, and a mensch of the highest order. He made a tremendous difference and I’ll miss him greatly. A lot of people will need to step up to fill the leadership void left by his death.” Please heed Congressman Huffman’s request and step up to ensure that Woody’s work continues by making a donation in his honor ( to the Center for Freethought Equality today.