Henry Bloch’s legacy in Kansas City
Henry Bloch, the Kansas City philanthropist and the driving force, along with his late brother Richard, behind the H&R Block Inc. tax preparation dynasty, died Tuesday morning at age 96.
Bloch, known as a gentle and gracious man of wry humor, was surrounded by family as he died in hospice.
“He was an extraordinarily ordinary guy,” his son Tom Bloch said Tuesday. “A very common man who was so humble and so strong.”
Born in Kansas City on July 30, 1922, into a prominent Jewish family, Henry Wollman Bloch left an imprint on his hometown and its business, educational and artistic organizations that has been incalculable. He literally changed the skyline, marshaling his fortune and influence with his namesake foundation to create the H&R Block headquarters downtown and the Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
As notable as any, Bloch was the philanthropic force behind the glass “lenses” that are the Bloch Building, the glowing and cascading modernist structure that all but floats along the east side of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Soon after its opening in 2007, a critic for The New Yorker magazine hailed the work by architect Steven Holl as “one of the best museums of the last generation.”
More recently, Bloch donated 29 of his personal and nearly priceless impressionist and post-impressionist paintings to the Nelson. Visitors by the tens of thousands have since 2017 enjoyed the artwork of Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and others that once hung in the home of Bloch and his beloved wife, Marion Helzberg Bloch, who died in 2013.
“Henry is irreplaceable,” Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO at the Nelson, said in a statement. “But beyond the museum … Henry has been an outstanding citizen whose generosity and vision have had a transformative impact on Kansas City. He has been a benefactor as well as a source of inspiration that continues to illuminate all that we do. We will miss him very much.”
In 2017, Bloch penned a thank-you to Kansas City, only months after receiving messages of gratitude and well wishes on his 95th birthday.
“Although, appreciated, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you, Kansas City,” he wrote in a guest column in The Star. “Thank you to the people who have meant so much to me. Thank you to the community that has provided me so much support. And thank you to the organizations that make this such a wonderful place to raise a family, start and grow a business and leave a legacy.”
That legacy went beyond business, beyond art. In 1990, Bloch’s name became front and center over perceived anti-Semitism when Bloch was not considered for membership in the Kansas City Country Club. As a result, Hall of Fame golfer Tom Watson quit the club in protest.
A week later Bloch was offered a membership and accepted. Watson rejoined the club in 1995.
Former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, now in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, left little doubt about the effect Bloch had on his life.
“If not for Henry and others like him,” Cleaver said, “I would never end up in the mayor’s office as the first African American. There’s no way. …
“Being Jewish, he had an almost natural kinship to others who had experienced discrimination and hostility based on something like religion or skin color.”
Bloch and his younger brother, Richard, who died in 2004, started H&R Block in 1955, substituting a “K” for an “H” so the pronunciation was clear.
The idea to start his own business came to him in 1946 after he returned from World War II and won several medals for his service in the Army Air Corps.
“I flew B-17s, the Flying Fortress. I flew 32 missions, mainly over Germany. We bombed Berlin three times,” Bloch told The Star in 2016. “We flew three missions on D-Day and were shot up on every mission, but not on D-Day. … That was a very easy day.”
Seeing a future in small businesses, Bloch and his older brother, Leon, borrowed $5,000 in 1945 to open a small bookkeeping business, United Business Co., on Main Street. Leon would decide to return to law school shortly after. Henry and Richard joined together in the business in 1946.
“We admittedly had no idea of the success we would eventually achieve,” Bloch said in his thank-you column. “While it required a lot of hard work, we also benefited from a lot of good luck.”
There was also little doubt that a drive for success was part of his upbringing.
“Be ambitious,” his mother, Hortense Wollman Bloch, used to tell her three sons, as related in a 1983 story on the company. “Amount to something.”
One son thought of teaching mathematics in a small town. Not good enough, his mother reportedly judged. The boys’ father, Leon Bloch, was an attorney. Their mother came from a wealthy family, the Wollmans, who would give their name and money to various civic endeavors, including the famed Wollman Rink — the ice skating rink in New York’s Central Park — and a park in Leavenworth.
Bloch and his siblings grew up comfortably in a fine house at 58th Street and Wornall Road.
Bloch described himself as a hard-working but average student, although he did excel in math. “I had to work hard — and I did,” he once said, “to make average grades.”
His son Tom Bloch recounted a story his father had told him — how in 1936 he saw the movie “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” starring Paul Muni, who would go on to win the Oscar for best actor.
“He came out of the theater saying, ‘I want to contribute to society,’” Tom Bloch said. “He had this personal mission. I think H&R Block was the vehicle. Philanthrophy is his legacy. …
“People tell you to be passionate about your work. I almost feel he was passionate about work. He loved to work.”
Henry Bloch attended Southwest High School, and, at 16, the University of Kansas City (now UMKC) before transferring to the University of Michigan. He related how he had a “spinster aunt” in New York whose brother had gone to Michigan. She said she would foot the bill.
“So that’s where I went,” Bloch recounted.
“He never felt he was very smart,” Tom Bloch said, “and his grades reflected that. His brothers made great grades, and he struggled to make Cs, even though he worked twice as hard as his brothers.”
Then came the war. He made it through uninjured.
The military eventually sent Bloch to Harvard Business School for statistical control training.
“He said he was the dumbest person who ever went to Harvard,” Tom Bloch said. “He said it is not necessarily how smart you are but how dedicated you are to what you are doing.”
At Harvard’s library, he ran across a pamphlet that included a lecture to insurance executives from Harvard professor and renowned labor economist Sumner Schlichter about how they ought to invest in small businesses as a pillar of the the American economy most in need of help.
Bloch went to Schlichter and, according to his telling in a 1978 profile in The Star, he told the professor that he intended to start a business that would assist small enterprises with advertising, accounting, public relations, hiring and income tax preparation.
“It’s a good idea,” Schlichter reportedly told Bloch, “although it may not make you rich.”
“That’s all the encouragement I needed,” Bloch told The Star.
Armed with a letter of introduction, and desirous of still more guidance, Bloch and his older brother Leon went to Washington, D.C., to discuss his idea with both the U.S. secretary of commerce, Henry Wallace, and the famed Gen. Omar Bradley, then the head of the Veterans Administration.
Both said the Blochs ought to start small.
“Wallace suggested in the basement of my home,” Bloch said. “General Bradley, the attic.”
They opened an office for the United Business Co. at 3037 Main, paying $50 a month in rent.
“Our first customer,” Bloch told The Star in 1957, “was Paul Agnew. He had a hamburger stand at 39th and Main. I told him to put his bills in an envelope. I would pick up the envelopes twice a month, post his books and make out his income tax.”
The second client was a gas station.
“I offered to work for free for four months,” Bloch said in yet another profile, “then he could pay us what he thought our services were worth, or fire us.”
Business was slow. Leon left the business and returned to study law. Younger brother Richard, who had been working at a brokerage firm, signed on.
In 1955, everything changed. The brothers initially saw tax preparation as a complementary service they offered to their small-business clients. That year they had considered eliminating tax services and focus on bookkeeping, according to H&R Block’s own account.
“The employees of our customers raised an outcry of objection,” Bloch had recalled. “‘Who’s going to make our returns? We can’t afford an accountant.’”
Instead of abandoning the tax service, an advertising representative for The Kansas City Star encouraged the brothers to continue doing taxes and to advertise their $5 tax preparation service with not just one ad, but two. It would cost them $200.
“Richard and I talked it over before we decided to gamble that much money,” Bloch said.
The second ad ran. A line for their services formed out their door. The business was born.
H&R Block eventually grew to an international business, going public in 1962, franchising its tax preparation service.
Bloch, who would be seen for years on television promoting the service, was president of H&R Block from 1962 to 1988, adding the titles of chief executive officer in 1974 and chairman of the board in 1989. He retired as CEO in 1992 and as board chairman in 2000.
Some 12,000 H&R Block offices operate today.
“If it weren’t for the Kansas Citians who supported our early efforts, H&R Block would never have become what it is today,” Bloch wrote. “We did this not because we had to, but because it was the right thing to do. We knew that business could be more than making money, but also about making a difference.”
Tributes poured in at the news of Bloch’s passing.
Greg Graves, the chief executive officer of Burns & McDonnell from 2004 to 2017, called Bloch a “hero.” Graves said that when he first became CEO he contacted Bloch for guidance.
“Henry Bloch was to me what he was to many in town — a mentor, a leader, a hero,” Graves said. “I looked up to him every day. … This country needs more Henry Blochs.”
The Jewish Community Relations Bureau expressed deep sorrow at the loss of the “humble and soft-spoken man. … Few aspects of community life remain untouched by Henry’s generosity and energy.”
Leo Morton, now president and COO of DeBruce Companies, was chancellor of UMKC when the new Bloch business school was built.
“How did we manage to be so fortunate that we had Henry in our lives?” Morton said Tuesday. “He didn’t just invest in our efforts; Henry invested in our lives for the good of all. He invested in me. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough! I believe Henry heard ‘thank you’ more than anyone on the planet.”
Bloch is survived by four children: Robert L. Bloch, Thomas M. Bloch, Mary Jo Brown and Elizabeth Uhlmann, all of Kansas City; 12 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. But the public is invited to a memorial service at 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 29, in Atkins Auditorium at the Nelson-Atkins. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at UMKC, the Nelson-Atkins or St. Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute. Condolences may be sent to rememberinghenrybloch.com.
Includes reporting by The Star’s Bryan Lowry.