It’s not often that we take the time to pay tribute to all the leaders who have come through NAFEM’s doors, and to share special moments or stories about our encounters, and certainly for the current NAFEM headquarters team, and specifically, Charlie and me, it’s time to speak up.
The industry lost – stealing one of his favorite words – a “spectacular” leader, coach, mentor, connector, friend and supporter when Ira Kaplan left us last month.
Ira’s passion for the industry and for its people was unparalleled. He loved to be the connector, the introducer, the director of thought, the inspirer, the inquisitor, the teacher and, most importantly, the coach. He made you believe anything was possible, and the way you made that possible happen was to be out there – asking questions, networking, learning, listening, sharing and growing.
His energy was as contagious as it was exhausting. I am convinced that there is not one ounce of that man’s small, sturdy frame that wasn’t always, always in 24-hour overdrive.
I first met Ira when he was just getting engaged in NAFEM leadership roles in 1981. He was the seminar vice-chair for the Trade Show Advisory Council (TSAC), which was known at the time as the NAFEM/81 Steering Committee. By 1989, he had risen through the NAFEM ranks to become president, and in 1991, he chaired the trade show. In those days, it was customary for just the trade show committee to meet for a thank-you dinner the night before the show opened. At that dinner, the show chair would offer remarks – historically a thank you – to the 12 people who planned and participated in bringing the show together. It was a small dinner, and, as a NAFEM show staff person, you knew you were really lucky if you were invited to participate, since only the committee, past show chairs and a limited number of staff team members were included. All in all, there were probably 30 people in the room.
Ira got up as dessert was being served and started his remarks. In typical Ira fashion, the remarks weren’t general, they were specific and very, very personal. He took the time that night, to share with the group, something about each person in the room – what they meant to him personally, what they meant to him as show chair, and what they meant to NAFEM. He started with Jim Rafferty, formerly with Blickman Equipment, who was a past show chair. Standing behind him, he put his hands on Jim’s shoulders and said “because he’s my friend." He then moved on, making a comment about each person. Well, I started crying – actually bawling my eyes out -- from that first comment and didn’t stop until he was done. When he got to Charlie and me, in addition to our individual comments, he had his hands on our shoulders and said “this is the future of NAFEM.” Who knew then, that we’d have the privilege of continuing to work with NAFEM, and, the privilege of learning from and growing with Ira Kaplan.
Every year, no matter where he was in the world, I always got a call or a note from Ira on my birthday. This year, Ira left us on my birthday. While he’s gone, it gives me great comfort to know that I will always share that day with him – the person who was always so gracious to me – and to so many of you -- with his time, his knowledge and his spirit. I think the line in “It’s a Wonderful Life” sums it up best, especially as the year comes to a close “…every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” Ira already had his wings – they are just more “spectacular” than anything you’ve ever seen.
NAFEM Executive Vice President