One for the History Books

By Dick Anderson Photo by John Kruissink

An estate commitment from Gary Kaplan ’71 honors Professor Emeritus Wellington Chan—whom he helped bring to Occidental more than 50 years ago

As a senior history major at Occidental, Gary Kaplan ’71 served on the search committee to fill a full-time faculty position, with an emphasis on Asian studies, in the History Department. “I was specializing in American and Far Eastern history,” he recalls, “so that’s probably how I got the gig.”

Hong Kong native Wellington Chan, a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian history at Harvard University, was one of two finalists for the position. Recalling his first impressions of Chan, Kaplan says, “He had a remarkable academic record and fit the profile of the College perfectly. He was very articulate but a very soft-spoken guy. In those days there were a lot of loud voices at Oxy—it was good to talk to somebody who was a little quieter.”

Priscilla Chan, President Elam, and Gary Kaplan ’71.
From left, Priscilla Chan, President Elam, and Gary Kaplan ’71 at the campaign celebration in October 2023. Photo by Marc Campos

In similarly quiet fashion, Kaplan recently made a multimillion-dollar commitment to Occidental to ensure the same teaching excellence that Chan brought to the classroom over his 39 years at the College. Oxy will use the proceeds from Kaplan’s estate gift to complete the principal funding to establish the Wellington Chan Chair in Chinese Studies, as well as to create the Gary L. Kaplan ’71 Endowed Faculty Research Fund.

A partner in Greenberg Glusker, a full-service law firm in Los Angeles, Kaplan has practiced for more than 30 years in the area of tax and business planning for small and midsize businesses, focusing on partnerships, limited liability companies, and S corporations. He returned to Occidental’s Board of Trustees in 2017 and serves on the Audit and Nominating & Governance committees.

A native of Los Angeles, Kaplan enrolled at Occidental in 1967 from Fairfax High School. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history, which he jokingly calls “one major you choose when you can’t decide a major. Occidental had a great history department, and it was rigorous, and most of my friends were either history or poli sci majors. We’re still in touch.”

After graduating from Occidental, Kaplan studied for a year in Taiwan on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. In 1976, he completed a master’s in regional studies–East Asia from Harvard as well as a J.D. from Harvard Law School. 

Kaplan was inspired to designate his estate gift by the College’s 137-year-old motto, Occidens Proximus Orienti—“The West is nearest the East.” “As history majors, my friends and I decided we were going to solve the problems of the world—and one way Occidental could distinguish itself is by emphasizing international studies and the Pacific in particular. Wellington Chan filled that role for 39 years.”

Occidental’s commitment to Asia studies, and China in particular, dates back more than 100 years. As Andrew Rolle ’43 wrote in his centennial history of Oxy, “Some of the [College’s] earliest students came from missionary families that had spent years in the Far East and had brought back an appreciation of Oriental culture. By 1918, the College offered its first courses on the Far East.”

Following the death of Professor Poon-Kan “P.K.” Mok, who taught Chinese history and literature at Oxy from 1944 until his passing in January 1967, Occidental went through a succession of instructors in East Asian history before hiring Franklin Odo in the fall of 1968. Kaplan did some independent studies with Odo, who left a tenure-track position in the History Department after just two years to take a one-year appointment at UCLA.

“As a student, I was able to put together a very worthy curriculum through independent study,” Kaplan recalls. “We had wonderful courses in art history and Asian religion. But what was missing was a full-time, tenure-track East Asian person in the History Department.”

Which brings us to Wellington Chan. He joined the Occidental faculty in 1971 and has published extensively on the socioeconomic history of modern China. His 1977 book, Merchants, Mandarins and Modern Enterprise in Late Ch’ing China, published by Harvard University Press, was later translated into Chinese by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was promoted to full professor in 1985 and was named National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in 2008.

Wellington Chan, John Brooks Slaughter
Wellington Chan, left, receives the Sterling Award from President John Brooks Slaughter in 1994. Photo by Frances Hill

Over his time at Oxy, Chan received several national research fellowships and grants and the 1994 Graham L. Sterling Memorial Award. A Fulbright Scholar at Lingnan University in Hong Kong in 2004, Chan frequently presented papers on Chinese entrepreneurship and business history in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei, as well as in Europe. Following his retirement in 2010, he continued to travel to Asia as an ambassador for the College. Through the support of Chan, wife Priscilla, and a number of lead donors, Occidental inaugurated the Wellington K.K. Chan Distinguished Visitors in Residence Program in Chinese Studies in spring 2013 with authors James and Deborah Fallows.

Although Kaplan never took a course from Chan—having graduated just months before the instructor’s arrival—the two became acquainted over the years through various receptions at the College.

By attaching a faculty research fund to his commitment, Kaplan hopes that the History Department will be able to attract and retain faculty interested in furthering their own academic pursuits. “Chances are that professors can leverage this fund in order to get supplementary grants,” he says. “That’s what we do at Occidental.”