During his sophomore year, Jacob Kaplan ’19 would often tease one of his roommates, Lawrence Cajuste ’18, asking him why on Earth he would subject himself to living with “all that is Jacob Kaplan” for a second year.
After all, Kaplan was the type of person to throw inflatable toys and a plush grenade at his roommates. ‘Butterscotch,’ Kaplan’s stuffed lamb, was a favorite. Sometimes, Kaplan would hide the phone of another roommate, Benjamin Shi ’18, in Shi’s pillow case. Other times, he would pretend to ‘accidentally’ block Cajuste’s way wherever he was heading.
But Kaplan was also the type of person to handwrite and design birthday cards, walk across campus to unlock a door for a roommate, and ensure that his younger sister, Shelby Kaplan, never went to bed drunk.
“When he would come home with me to my hometown, and it was someone’s birthday,” explained Becca Miller, Kaplan’s longtime girlfriend and a 2017 graduate of The College of New Jersey, “he would write a handwritten card to give to them.”
Kaplan’s sense of humor and big heart, Cajuste said, were two reasons he would never have wanted a room without Kaplan.
And, when Kaplan was diagnosed with Stage IV angiosarcoma — a rare and severe form of cancer — three days after his 21st birthday on Apr. 4, 2017, according to Cajuste, none of “all that is Jacob Kaplan” changed.
After an eight-month battle, Kaplan, a talented computer programmer, passed away on Dec. 24, 2017. He was 21 years old.
In mid-March, shortly before his diagnosis, Kaplan was sent to the emergency room for stomach pains, according to his GoFundMe page. But, after several weeks and numerous tests, what was originally thought to be a problem with his appendix turned out to be large growth on his liver and other small lesions throughout his chest and abdomen.
According to the Sarcoma Foundation of America, angiosarcoma affects the blood vessels and comprises one to two percent of all sarcomas, a class of rare cancers that grow in connective tissue. When Kaplan was diagnosed last April, the cancer had already entered a metastatic stage — Stage IV — traveling to sites beyond where the cancer first started.
Originally part of the Class of 2018, Kaplan had taken a leave of absence from the University for the spring 2017 semester, but had returned this fall to finish his degree in computer science. According to updates on his GoFundMe page, the cancer appeared to have gone into remission before the fall semester began, but in early December, he was admitted to the emergency room due to severe abdominal pain. He was originally at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro before transferring to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he spent his remaining days.
Since April, the University community has rallied behind Kaplan, who, together with his family, began a GoFundMe campaign that raised roughly $139,000 by the time of publication to cover treatment costs, with any excess funds going to angiosarcoma research.
A member of Whitman College, Kaplan was also a part of several University organizations, many of which sought to help. Kaplan’s club baseball team, for which he formerly served as co-president, held a fundraiser for Kaplan. In April, Kaplan’s eating club, Quadrangle Club, held a charity auction for his treatment. Kaplan was also involved with Chabad and the University’s Center for Jewish Life, which started the #GoodDeedsforJacob initiative in mid-December.
The University’s tennis team also held a fundraiser after reading Kaplan’s GoFundMe page.
Among those who knew him, Kaplan had an impeccable sense of humor. He could always make anyone laugh with his unsuspecting jokes, innate wit, and dark humor.
Shelby Kaplan drew attention to this at Kaplan’s funeral. “On my worst days or when I was incredibly mad,” she said, “he was the only one that could make me laugh so hard [that] I forgot [what I was upset about].”
She also remembers Kaplan’s “giant orange joke book” that he would read from almost nightly. Kaplan took pride that his initials were “JK” and that his birthday fell on April Fool’s Day.
Even when his parents were upset at him, he still strove to find a way to lighten the situation.
“We’d get mad at him,” his mother Robyn Kaplan said. “And he’d give us a look, just to make us laugh.”
On the club baseball team, too, which he joined freshman year, Kaplan would joke around to relieve the tension after a bad inning or a bad game, explained the club’s co-president Taek Yoon Lee ’18.
Shi affectionately referred to his jokes as “Jacob jokes.” It wasn’t necessarily the content, but the enthusiastic way in which they were told that made them funny, explained Shi.
While Kaplan joked a lot, he also cared deeply for those around him, especially for his family.
“My entire life,” said Shelby in her speech, “he filled the big brother role as my protector.”
The relationship he had with his sister was remarkably close, observed Kaplan’s parents. They noted that the siblings would tell each other everything.
“Even stuff they didn’t share with us, they would tell each other and counsel each other,” his father Michael Kaplan said.
As a first-year student at Franklin & Marshall College, Shelby Kaplan even chose to spend her 2017 fall break with her brother, and he brought her to Quad, showed her the various dining halls, and just spent time with her.
“When we hung out, it wasn’t that we had to do anything, it wasn’t that we needed to be kept busy,” she explained. “We would just be together.”
Though he went to school thousands of miles away from his home in Chatsworth, Calif., Kaplan tried his best to stay close to his parents, calling them just about every day on his way to class or to Quad even if it was only to say hello.
“Sometimes, he’d be walking and we wouldn’t be necessarily be talking, but it was like I was walking with him,” Michael Kaplan said.
Kaplan's mother added that the relationship he had with his parents was akin to friendship.
“He was our friend aside from being our son,” she explained.
On campus, he was known to have a positive attitude and went out of his way to make people smile. At Quad, he would randomly approach other students and strike up a conversation, according to Shi.
“Jacob was nice to everybody, no matter who you were,” said Miller, who often visited Quad with Kaplan. “He would try to make you feel included.”
Shi recalls walking back with Kaplan after a party and confessing to Kaplan that Shi had felt like he didn’t fit in with the scene.
“I expected him to make a joke, but he took it really seriously,” said Shi. “He offered me advice and said how sometimes he felt that way, too.”
Kaplan’s immense empathy also enabled him to grasp each player’s talent and personality to help better integrate them into the team — making him an ideal club baseball co-captain, explained Lee. Although captaincy meant having the power to decide who was on the field or on the bench, Kaplan often sacrificed his own playtime to give others more time on the field.
Kaplan also loved academics. He majored in computer science, but also found a passion for linguistics — his intended certificate. According to Miller, he would joke that he was actually a linguist.
“The way things came so naturally to him was amazing,” said another former roommate of Kaplan’s, Newby Parton ’18.
Parton is a former head opinion editor for The Daily Princetonian.
In the same dorm where Kaplan would bombard his roommates with stuffed toys, Parton remembers that the whiteboard on Kaplan’s wall would regularly be filled with visual mappings of programming operations.
Before he learned of his diagnosis, Kaplan landed a competitive internship with Qualtrics, an experience management and online survey company in Utah, for the summer of 2017. He had to give up this internship due to his illness.
Miller noted that Kaplan would sometimes stay after class to talk to his professors and that he enjoyed having intellectual conversations with friends. She also praised Kaplan’s writing, describing him as the better writer and speaker of the two of them.
More than just being academically driven and gifted, Kaplan “balanced work and personal life really well,” Parton said.
Kaplan didn’t let his diagnosis keep him from that balance either. Even in the hospital, he would bring a book in hopes of doing work. Shelby noted that he contacted Golden Hour, a company he had interned at the summer after sophomore year, and found a way to work for them remotely whenever he felt up to it. He would continue to make jokes and, according to Shi, laugh at his own expense.
“He was definitely scared, but he always made jokes regardless of the dire situation,” said Miller. “He wasn’t fixated on his condition. He focused on living every day to the fullest.”
Kaplan stayed positive around his friends and family, with his sister noting that her brother was “never not” himself.
“Even at the time of his disease, he would still worry about others,” Michael Kaplan continued. “The whole time, he believed that he could overcome it.”
He remained a supportive boyfriend and tried his best to uplift Miller’s spirits, continuing to design and write her special cards — a tradition he had started during their relationship. Every month or so, he would design her a card, sometimes to commemorate a special occasion and sometimes just to write one.
Even after his passing, Kaplan maintains a strong presence in the lives of his loved ones.
“Throughout my life, Jacob has always been my comedic relief, my inspiration, my pride, and loudest cheerleader,” said his sister, “but most of all he was and always will be my best friend.”
Cajuste remembers how whenever he and Kaplan needed a study break, they’d unwind on what Kaplan called the ‘magical couch’ in their room and play Kill Shot Bravo on their phones. Kaplan and Cajuste’s usernames, “bballjake” and “L-Nasty,” respectively, even became their alternative persona names after composing “Let’s Get It Done and Make It Happen,” a rap song.
Parton recalls how often Kaplan watched the American comedy series, Impractical Jokers, with Shi, explaining that he has become inspired to watch it himself.
Shi remembers how Kaplan, after he watched Shi drop his prox and claim that he ‘lost’ it, kept teasing Shi about losing his prox.
His parents remember the television shows that they watched together, the video games they played together, the countless games of Uno that they shared. His sister recalls his bizarre Cold Stone Creamery concoctions and the late nights that they spent talking.
Miller still texts him, updating him about her day, and continues to send him funny videos on Facebook. She thinks about him often, recalling things small and large. She remembers that his favorite food was a bacon cheeseburger and she especially remembers the time he asked her to be his girlfriend in Prospect Garden.
“Jacob made the most of every day and was positive and engaged in the classroom, excited about life,” said Miller. “I want to have that same contagious love of life as him.”
His mother echoed Miller’s sentiments.
“Jacob lived,” she explained. “He didn’t just go through the motions. He enjoyed life and lived.”
Kaplan is survived by his parents Robyn and Mike Kaplan and his sister, Shelby. The University offered condolences to the Kaplan family and noted that memorial donations may be made to the nonprofit organization Angiosarcoma Awareness Inc.