I recently wrote a piece on Andrew Blacks and the Positive Influence basketball program at Amsterdam Houses. Andrew has a compelling personal story and strong commitment to improving the lives of young people. He has chosen basketball to reach young people but with a vision of doing much more. He is a veritable unsung community hero.
Several days later I received a call from a longtime West Side resident who is a committed Spirit reader and follows the happenings on the West Side. His name is Ronald Kapon. My curiosity was piqued when he described his own love of basketball, the donation he made years ago to the same Amsterdam Houses playground, as well as his involvement with the 76th Street basketball courts in Riverside Park and the Dyckman Houses basketball program in upper Manhattan. He also served as president of the 20th Precinct community council and was not shy about telling his story.
I asked if he would meet with me since I am always interested in the stories of venerable West Siders who care about their neighborhood and represent a force for doing good. We met for a cup of coffee at Zabar’s, Ron’s favorite watering hole, and spoke for an hour standing at the counter of its coffee shop.
You might know who Ron Kapon is if you are a wine connoisseur (I am far from it, having never acquired a taste for any type of alcohol). He comes from the family that owns Acker, formerly known as Acker, Merrall and Condit, the famous wine store on West 72nd Street. Acker lays claim to being the oldest and most respected wine shop in America, having opened with a package store in 1820. Ron’s nephew, John Kapon, represents the third generation of the family, and in 1998, expanded its retail operation and began holding wine auctions in New York City and Hong Kong. Ron was on his way to meet up with John after our talk to attend one of the Acker auctions.
Ron acknowledges that he didn’t start the business. “A reporter once asked me if I founded the company but I told him I wasn’t around in 1820,” he chided. However, Ron did spin a tale about wine selling and the liquor business during prohibition. “My dad was an accountant and he ended up acquiring the business during that era. The store used to be on 86th Street but my brother moved the store to 72nd Street 25 years ago,” he said. “I could tell you many stories.”
Love for Teaching
Ron spent over 60 years in the travel and wine business. He graduated from Columbia College in 1956 and continued his studies at the Columbia School of Business. He developed a particular love for teaching and created wine and spirit programs at Queens College and the New York Institute of Technology. He later organized a program at the International School of Hospitality & Tourism management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and taught for many years at their Hackensack campus as well as at Columbia.
After graduate school, Ron went to Europe where he learned the wine business and then moved to Chicago to open a chain of stores. “Do you remember Korvettes department store?” he asked. “Well, the Ferkaufs, who founded the store, were our third cousins. They built several stores in Chicago and I ran the wine and liquor operation.”
Ron mentioned many of the well-known people he had come into contact with during his years in the wine business and his volunteer work – from Yoko Ono to the likes of Dr. J and Walt Frazier. Yet he said this with a modesty that belied his genuine caring for the young people he has helped.
“I believe that sports can do wonders for people, who, you know may have to overcome other things. I was involved with the creation of the midnight basketball program under then Governor Mario Cuomo. His answer was that it was better for kids to play basketball on Saturday night than just hang out and potentially get in trouble.”
Ron spoke proudly of the young people, some of them former students, he has “fostered” over the years. Many have gone on to be successful in their own right. He acknowledged that it’s been difficult with COVID but he has managed to stay in touch with about half of the seventeen young people he considers as part of his extended family.
“One of them came down yesterday to pick up some gifts that I got for him. He’s now 40 and runs a department at Teachers College at Columbia. I knew him when he was thirteen. Another’s child just got married in New Jersey and I was an usher.”
Sam Katz succeeded Ron as the president of the 20th Precinct community council in the mid 1990s. “Ron first recruited me as his assistant when he was president. He was very proactive. He raised money to replace the bikes the officers used and to rebuild the kitchen at the precinct. He was a real go getter,” she said. “He is also one of the foremost wine experts on this planet. I am not exaggerating. He has traveled the world writing and consulting about wine.”
I closed my conversation with Ron by asking what advice he would give to young people today given his years in the worlds of business, basketball and volunteerism. He didn’t miss a beat. “Sports and education are the most important things,” he highlighted. “Stay in school and graduate. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or where you come from. When you go out into the world, stay positive and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.”
It’s reassuring to know that there are still the Ron Kapons of the world out there trying to make a difference.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor.