The last time I saw Henry Bloch, it was a perfectly fitting occasion. He was sitting down and welcoming a crowd of visitors and press people previewing the newly expanded and rebuilt European wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It was 2017. He was 94 at the time, and seemed a little more frail than usual. The Bloch family foundation had funded the $12 million reconstruction of the first floor’s northeast quadrant, and Henry and his late wife, Marion, had collected the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that had now been donated to the museum.
Though the family name is attached to the new galleries (in addition to the entire ultra-modern expansion building to the east), it’s a measure of Bloch’s humble generosity that his paintings do not stand by themselves in a dedicated space. He agreed that incorporating the works into the chronological flow of the Nelson’s European collection would make for a far more coherent visitor experience than would the vanity gesture of isolating the pieces in their own rooms.
If memory serves, Bloch was grateful that the museum was able to launch the project and complete it in time for him to see it. He was well aware of his own mortality. And Kansas City, the place that he loved and enriched, is now well aware of that, too. Bloch’s death, at age 96, was reported April 23.
Entrepreneur. Civic leader. Generous philanthropist. Mensch. That combination is all too rare in our world.
Bloch co-founded the H&R Block tax service with his brother Richard. It grew into one of Kansas City’s best known, homegrown business successes. But first came his life-defining service in World War II. He enlisted shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He became a navigator in the air war over Europe and experienced the life-or-death cacophony of combat in bombing missions to Berlin.
Like many veterans of his generation, he rarely spoke about the war or his service, though, near the end of his life, he felt compelled to share his story. (See Navigating a Life, by John Herron and Mary Ann Wynkoop, published by UMKC’s BkMk Press.)
“That war was a singular moment in human history,” he once explained. “Forces of great evil were vanquished, and it ushered in a period of American greatness on the world stage. My role in it was minor, but every thread in that tapestry has meaning and deserves memory.”
In the book’s foreword, Gen. Richard Myers summed up how war had forged an important strand of Bloch’s character, one that led to his venture into business: “Henry was no longer afraid; he was not afraid to fail and was no longer self-limiting in what he would attempt. WWII forever altered his views of risk taking.”
That spirit surely applies to Bloch’s legacy of giving back to the city that nurtured and made him. Many of our cultural institutions, indeed, the city’s streetscape, wouldn’t be the same without Bloch’s involvement and generosity.
The risk taking seemed to be embedded in the development of the Nelson’s Bloch Building, and Bloch, a museum trustee and key benefactor, was not immune to the turmoil, the snags and the community sniping that accompanied its emergence from the ground. He was ultimately relieved by the final product and its overwhelming public reception. Likewise, he had to endure the embarrassment caused by an academic scandal at the UMKC business school that bears his name.
To most people who encountered Bloch in real life, he never put on airs. When it came to art he was guileless. He and his beloved wife never pretended to be connoisseurs. They were not trophy hunters. All they wanted was to put “pretty pictures” on their walls. And such pictures: portraits by Renoir and Matisse, Caillebotte’s brilliant-blue river with sailboat, Pissarro’s scene of a Paris street. In the Bloch Galleries, my eye continues to be drawn to the small seaside scenes by Eugène Boudin. They reflect a wealth of subtle social commentary along with the artist’s exquisite eye for detail and light.
There is much to admire in the life of Henry Bloch, and Kansas Citians will long remember him for the things he gave the community, from eye-popping buildings to the joy of philanthropy to tiny and inspiring strokes of paint.