When Judge Arthur Kaplan Steps Down from the Bench, He Tempers Justice with a Samaritan's Mercy

updated 05/19/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Judge Arthur Kaplan's days are not so different from those of his seven fellow justices on the Atlanta Municipal Court. His nights are something else. Several times a week the 55-year-old jurist rises from the dinner table, climbs into his gold Plymouth, checks his medical kit and tunes the car's four radios to hospital, police and fire department frequencies. At the first report of trouble, he is on the way, siren squealing, roof light flashing.

Kaplan is an unpaid "first responder" to medical emergencies in Georgia's capital city, and has been for 20 years. In that time he has treated nearly 18,000 injuries, an achievement that has won him seven Red Cross Certificates of Merit (probably a world record, say Red Cross officials). "I know my business," Kaplan says. "If I get my hands on you, and you can be kept alive, I'll keep you alive."

His own response is so swift that he often arrives at the scene of an accident or crime before either the ambulance or the police. One time he faced a distraught man with a shotgun who was threatening suicide. While the judge tried to talk him out of it, the man suddenly turned the gun on Kaplan and pulled the trigger. The weapon misfired. "I have never," says the judge in measured understatement, "forgotten that incident."

He occasionally finds himself under real fire. In 1975 he was accompanying a policeman who exchanged shots with a suspect. When the officer was wounded, Kaplan drew the .38 revolver he regularly carries (he is also an honorary city police major) and continued the shooting as other officers arrived. In the end Kaplan patched up both the wounded cop and the suspect, who had been hit by 14 police bullets. "He lived through it, too," Kaplan recalls proudly.

Why does a busy judge give up so much of his spare timeā€”and take such risks? "It's the gratification of matching wits with fate," he reflects. After a pause, he adds: "I really think this is what God put me on the earth for." The judge, a native of suburban Covington, Ga., learned some first aid as a Boy Scout but did not appreciate its importance until World War II. As a Navy frogman, he took part in five invasions. At Okinawa his ship was struck 16 times by Japanese shells. "People were scattered everywhere, legs and arms blown off," he remembers. "I worked with the doctors because no one else knew what to do." Kaplan received a Naval Commendation for heroism.

Back from the war, he attended Atlanta's John Marshall Law School and taught water safety, then first aid as sidelines. While conducting his classes at a hospital, he noticed that "ambulances kept bringing in people who had died because nobody at accident scenes was trained in first aid." The philosophy then was that policemen, firemen and even ambulance attendants should not treat victims, leaving emergency procedures to the doctors. "If you got to the hospital in time, fine," Kaplan notes. "If not, too bad."

Overcoming initial skepticism, Kaplan persuaded the Atlanta police to institute a rescue program that has since become a model for other cities. He still puts on classes for city policemen, as well as a variety of other groups, all without charge. After his appointment to the bench in 1973, his official and extracurricular activities cut into family life, he admits, and caused strains with his wife, Frances, and their three children. "Frances just had to learn how much being on the street means to me, how I need it for my life," he says. His family learned; in fact, son Ronald, who started at 12 to make nighttime rounds with his father, went on to medical school. At 31 he is now chief surgical resident at Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital.

The judge's own commitment has stood the test of both time and injury. Hospitalized last year with lower back strain after an auto accident unrelated to his volunteer work, he exercised relentlessly to get back into shape and is prowling the streets of Atlanta again. "If I can save one more person's life," he says, sweating through his daily workout at a track near his home, "it will be worth it."

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