In an era when few women sat in the boardrooms of Boston’s nonprofits and businesses, Helene Rabb Cahners-Kaplan was a regular presence in many, elegantly dressed and often working on needlepoint, while ever alert to the proceedings and quick to voice her opinion.
“My mother went to many meetings,’’ said her daughter Nancy Cahners of Brookline. “As a result, we still have literally 75 throw pillows made out of these projects, several decorated with logos and insignias of the institutions: Mount Holyoke College, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Westbrook College, and others.’’
Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan was a civic activist at heart who had two strong philanthropic leaders in her life: her father, Sidney Rabb, founder of Stop & Shop Companies, and her late husband, Norman Cahners, founder of Cahners Publishing, who often consulted with her on business matters.
“My mother’s story complements theirs and adds a kind of feminist twist,’’ Nancy Cahners said. ”She was a woman of immense influence at a time when women were not invited into the halls of power.’’
Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan, who grew up in Brookline and Newton Centre, died in her sleep Nov. 2 at her home in Naples, Fla. after suffering for a long time with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 91.
From the 1950s through the ’80s, according to the Jewish Advocate, Mrs. Cahners served as an officer for about 30 organizations: She was vice president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, president of the women’s auxiliary of Beth Israel Hospital, a director of Boston Edison Co., chairwoman of the board of overseers and life trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to name a few.
The Boston Symphony was very important in Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan’s life. Nancy Cahners said her mother “went to Symphony every Friday and would take a nap every Sunday listening to classical music.”
Dr. Mitchell Rabkin, former president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, reflected the feelings of many when he said, “Helene was just a very straightforward person, warm in her relationships and quite smart. She was elegant and stylish without being in your face, but she was all business when committed to an organization and its efforts and saw clearly what the tasks were.’’
Win Lenihan, vice president for development for WGBH, where Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan was vice chairwoman of its board of trustees in the 1970s, said she worked in a number of capacities, including on efforts to establish a new board of leadership volunteers.
Lenihan said she was amazed at “how Helene was able to command so much authority without making a fuss’’ and with “quiet determination and assuredness.’’
Jane Bradley of Manchester, a former Boston Symphony Orchestra Trustee who served with Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan as a volunteer and then as board member, said her strong leadership was always exerted with grace.
“She got things done and I never saw her scolding or upset,’’ Bradley said.
Helene Janice Rabinovitz was born to Sidney and Esther Rabinovitz and grew up in Brookline and in Newton Centre. She attended Westbrook Junior College in Portland, Maine, where she earned an associate degree and then went to Mount Holyoke College to study economics. She left in her senior year in 1941 to marry Norman Cahners, a Harvard graduate who starred in track and field, and they lived in Brookline and Newton. She returned to Mount Holyoke in the 1970s as a member of its board of trustees.
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, her husband joined the Navy and was based in Hingham, assigned to oversee handling of materiel.
After his service was over in 1946, he started Cahners Publishing.
“My father valued my mother’s input tremendously, especially her ability with people and would say, ‘the more I treat my employees like volunteers, the better things go.’ ’’ Nancy Cahners said.
Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan’s sister, Carol Rabb Goldberg, of Boston, a former president of Stop & Shop, told the Jewish Advocate she had a “wonderful business mind and I keep saying, ‘The wrong sister went into the business.’ ’’
When her own son died prematurely, Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan helped raise her grandson, Phil Cahners, now 42 and living in Barrington, R.I.
“While I was going to Berkeley College of Music, I often stayed at her Boston apartment,” he said. “Sometimes she would show up on campus unscheduled. She made me believe I could be a success.’’
His grandmother “did everything in a lady-like way,” he said. “She slid through the glass ceiling rather than crash through it.’’
Mrs. Cahners-Kaplan’s husband died in 1986 and three years later, she married George I. Kaplan, who died in 2001.
She moved to Naples, Fla., where her son, Robert, lives, in 1990.
Nancy Cahners said she thought her mother was “the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t look a bit like her, but I remember trying to smile like she did. She walked very fast and I would have to skip alongside to keep up with her. She dressed impeccably at all times, even when she was dressed casually.’’
But her mother would like to be remembered, she said, “for having made things better and easier and more accessible to others, to be remembered as part of the solution.’’
In spite of the ravages of Alzheimer’s, her son, Robert, said “Mother seemed to say, ‘This affliction may take away my identity but will never take away my dignity.’ Her caregivers always saw to it that she looked ready to receive guests.’’
In addition to her son, daughter, sister, and grandson, she leaves a stepdaughter, Ellen Kardon of Weston, eight other grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
A service has been held.