Residents had every reason not to attend the June 10 meeting of the Somerton Civic Association. It was the group’s final monthly meeting before its annual summer recess. The agenda was pretty light. Rain was falling in buckets.
But some 50 members and other community stakeholders trudged through the downpour to the meeting hall at Walker Lodge 306 for the gathering — not necessarily because of the agenda, but more-so because that’s what they always seem to do.
For years, the SCA has been considered one of the most active neighborhood organizations in the Northeast and perhaps the city. It’s a reputation built upon the engagement of the group’s former president, the late Mary Jane Hazell, as well as her longtime collaborator and eventual successor, Dolores Barbieri, whose collective influence has guided the volunteer nonprofit organization essentially since the 1970s.
That formidable legacy will transfer into new hands when the SCA reconvenes in September as 29-year-old Seth Kaplan will hold the gavel as the association’s new president. Barbieri resigned the post last week, citing her desire to focus on other community activities and Kaplan’s willingness to take the job. There were no other nominees for the position, so members appointed Kaplan and a slate of other officers by acclamation.
“I think they see someone who’s young and wants to make a difference,” Kaplan said of his neighbors. “And they’re going to watch what I do and how I operate a historically strong organization.”
The new civic leader told the Northeast Times that he’s been preparing for an opportunity like this for much of his life.
The son of two teachers who each served more than 40 years in the city’s public schools, Kaplan grew up in nearby Bustleton. He graduated from Washington High in 2003 and Albright College with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science.
While Kaplan was still an undergrad, his dad, Jay, met Brendan Boyle’s father, Frank, at the polls in 2004. At the time, Brendan was running for a state House seat. Seth joined the campaign that year as an intern, then volunteered for Boyle’s 2006 campaign for the same 170th district seat. Boyle lost both races, but returned in 2008 with Kaplan as campaign manager and won the seat. Kaplan left a career in the finance industry to join the campaign full-time.
Kaplan served as Boyle’s deputy chief of staff until 2010, when he became chief of staff for state Rep. Kevin Boyle, Brendan’s brother.
Kaplan moved into Somerton in 2008 and joined the civic association. He now has a 3-year-old daughter, Michaela, to care for, too. So his motivations for protecting and improving the neighborhood are many.
“A lot of it is having worked with Brendan Boyle and seeing the impact of what members of the community can do, seeing that individual voices can make a difference,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan soon took a leadership role in the organization after Dominic Ragucci stepped down from the zoning chairman position. Hazell held the same job in the late 1960s and early ’70s before serving more than three decades as president.
“Once Dominic decided to step down, I looked to fill the void. They were big shoes to fill,” Kaplan said. “[For me] it was learning on the fly. A lot of what prepared me was my legislative job, by working with and learning from the community, working with businesses and residents to learn what benefits their needs.”
Kaplan also hopes to learn from other civic leaders past and present. He is well-aware of Hazell’s oft-told anecdote involving her first zoning fight with the SCA. She and her husband had moved into the suburban-like neighborhood in 1965. Soon after, authorities announced plans to build a 12-story apartment building on Byberry Road.
Hazell mobilized neighbors to fight the project, only to learn that it would be a retirement home for police officers and their families. She opposed it anyway, arguing that high-rise apartments had no place in a community of mostly single-family homes. Hazell and the SCA lost that battle, although the project was downsized to eight stories. But years later, she acknowledged that the FOP home had become a community asset.
It was one of the few zoning fights that the SCA lost under Hazell’s lead. In 2007, the Philadelphia Eagles named her one of the 75 greatest living Philadelphians. Two years later, Hazell passed away. Barbieri moved from vice president to president as the group continued its important work.
Of note during the Hazell era, Mike Stack III served for a time as the group’s pro bono legal counsel. Stack later won a seat in the state Senate and is the current Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, with support from Hazell, who also served as a Democratic committeewoman in the 58th Ward.
Years later, Hazell supported Brendan Boyle in his bids for the state House, although the civic leader often said her priority was the community, not politics. Boyle is now the Democratic nominee for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 13th district. He and Stack still live in Somerton.
“She was a big supporter of Brendan and Stack, and I have to believe she’s smiling right now about what they’re accomplishing,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan also appreciates the work that people like Mayfair’s Joe DeFelice are doing. DeFelice is the zoning chairman of the Mayfair Civic Association, that group’s former president and the executive director of Philadelphia’s Republican City Committee.
“A great example is Joe DeFelice with the Mayfair Civic Association, how he goes about it. His entire life is Mayfair,” Kaplan said. “He’s devoted himself to a community and that’s what I look to do as well.”
Kaplan already serves on other Somerton organizations, including the boards at MaST Community Charter School, Northeast Victims Services, Northeast Family YMCA and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program at the Klein JCC, along with coaching baseball at Somerton Youth Organization.
“With every organization, it’s about forming relationships between them and the SCA, forming alliances,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we all have a common goal to strengthen the community.” ••