Originally published July 29, 2012
Mr. Lucky is turning 90.
Private celebrations this week will pay tribute to Henry W. Bloch. More than 300 family members, friends and associates have been invited for a birthday bash Monday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It will be followed by an employee-only reception on Wednesday at H&R Block headquarters that will bring back memories for its co-founder who retired in 2000.
Bloch's milestone has stirred those who know him well to offer their recollections, anecdotes and insights into one of Kansas City's favorite sons. And it prompted America's Tax Man, who in retirement has turned philanthropy into a second career, to share his own thoughts in an interview with The Kansas City Star.
Nearly nine decades haven't slowed Bloch much. Most weekdays, he walks up the 80 steps to his fourth-floor offices in the Plaza Library building.
As he begins to wind down some of his commitments, Bloch, a child of the Depression era and World War II Army aviator, shunned any credit for building a Fortune 500 firm or for showering his hometown with his personal wealth.
"I never expected to do anything like this, " Bloch said. "I'm extremely grateful for the luck I've had. I believe my case especially was mainly luck, 99 percent luck."
Vintage Henry Bloch. Never take credit for anything.
Family has been a source of support and inspiration. But others say Bloch undersells his own hard work and perseverance. They also see a rare trait - he seeks advice whether he's running the nation's largest tax business, collecting French impressionist paintings or bulking up a business school.
"That's the key to Henry, " said Marc F. Wilson, retired director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, a principal Bloch beneficiary. "He will rely on people because he knows that ... others know far more than he does."
In short, this is how the middle son of a middle son, a student who struggled to be average, became one of the nation's 400 wealthiest individuals and perhaps Kansas City's most notable entrepreneur.
Bloch has spent much of his life sharing his fortunes - including assisting other C students - and working steadfastly even now to help build institutions that embellish his hometown and fulfill the needs within it.
"He ... never lost site of where his roots are, " said Tom Hoenig, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City who got to know Bloch while seeking the businessman's view on the economy.
Kansas Citians won't soon forget the name Bloch.
They see and hear it all around town, whether they study at the Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, appreciate art inside the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, snap wedding pictures in front of the Bloch Fountain at Union Station, attend community college as a Bloch Scholar or simply get their taxes done by H&R Block like 20 million Americans do every spring.Payback
From the windows of his small fourth-floor office near the Plaza, Henry Bloch surveys his big three causes - a hospital, a museum and a business school.
To the north sits St. Luke's, where he led the three-year, $85 million campaign to build the recently completed Mid America Heart Institute.
Above the trees in the east, Bloch can catch just a glimpse of the stately art museum and its modern glass extension that bears his name.
It takes a sideways glance out the same window to see the University of Missouri-Kansas City home of the Bloch School.
These are long relationships.
Consider St. Luke's, for example. Before Bloch chaired the Heart Institute campaign, he was chairman of the hospital foundation and before that he was on the hospital's board. His involvement spans five decades.
"He's been very active for us, " said Mark Litzler, executive director of the foundation.
Naturally, Bloch's support means money.
Henry and Marion Bloch, his wife of 61 years, gave $3 million in the Heart Institute campaign. The funds set up a faculty position in gastroenterology at St. Luke's and established a center for liver disease management and transplant.
In 1994, they set up a $4 million endowment at UMKC's business school with essentially no strings attached as to how it would be used. The gift pushed their generosity to the Bloch School to $15 million at the time.
And last fall, Bloch gave twice that and then some to the school. His $32 million gift will establish the Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation - a marriage of technology and design in education.
"When the priority's big, it's big money, " said longtime friend Dick Levin.
Likely the couple's biggest single gift will come when a collection of 29 French impressionist paintings pass to the Nelson-Atkins Museum after their deaths.
The money is nice, to be sure, but beneficiaries say the added effort is what distinguishes Bloch from many other donors. He rolls up his sleeves.
Raising money for a building? Bloch's attention focuses beyond the budget. He'll weigh the layout, the design, how the space will be used and the quality of the programs inside.
He meets face-to-face with patients, students and others these institutions target.
For example, Bloch spends time with the Bloch Scholars, those C-average students that make it to community college and then UMKC with help from the H&R Block Foundation. He even attended one scholarship winner's wedding.
"He wants to understand the issues and work on solutions that will affect those, " said David Miles, president of the H&R Block Foundation that manages the company's charitable giving.
Bloch played more than one key role in the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Once a design committee settled on the plans, Bloch's job as head of the construction committee was to get it built.
Wilson credits Bloch for "standing up" to the dismay that the design created among some in the neighborhood and the "Butler building" catcalls that compared it to farm storage.
Wilson said Bloch also had to resolve engineers' sometimes conflicting opinions about whether the innovative glass and steel structure would even work.
Watching, Wilson said he learned that there's an easy way to tell whether Bloch is buying your story.
"When he's either dubious or doesn't understand it, he kind of puts his head down, cocks it to one side and shrugs his shoulders, " Wilson said. "And he sort of smiles wanly at you."
Beyond the big three, Bloch has shared his time and money with many organizations locally and nationally.
As Levin described Bloch, he is "much liked, much admired and much solicited."
A company fact sheet from 1990 listed 11 other groups for which the then CEO of H&R Block served as a director, trustee, chairman or vice chairman and 22 others he previously served.
He has received honors from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Boy Scouts of America, Junior Achievement, Jaycees and many more.
"It's hard to find an organization he has not been involved in over the years, " said his son Tom Bloch, who wrote a book about his father called "Many Happy Returns."
Bloch also pulls others into the act.
Kenneth Baum, who helped H&R Block become a publicly traded company in the 1960s, said Bloch introduced him to the Nelson-Atkins Museum and UMKC, both of which Baum came to champion.
At H&R Block, Bloch still personally recognizes employees who earn the company's community service awards - like scaled-down Henry Blochs - for their community work independent of anything the company does.
He and Richard, his younger brother, started the H&R Block Foundation 37 years ago to give away the company's money. At last count it had disbursed $54 million and still held a $58 million endowment to fuel future work.
"Most companies give money yearly, Henry set aside money, " said Morton Sosland, a childhood friend who served on H&R Block's board. "That was the kind of commitment to community that marked him as different."
It is the same dual commitment behind the Bloch School at UMKC. Its focus includes non-profit as well as for-profit management, said Dean Teng-Kee Tan.
"The Bloch School's principal vision and aspiration is to make our students every day become more like Henry Bloch, " Tan said.
So what's Bloch's generosity worth so far? Substantial would be an understatement and as close as estimates will get. Bloch says he doesn't know and wouldn't tell.
Bloch still works at his causes five days a week, albeit shorter days than in the past. And he has made Kansas City the focus of his second career. Friends say it is payback.
"It was Kansas City that gave him the opportunity, " Baum said.Success
Henry Bloch actually quit the tax business 57 years ago.
He and Richard had decided to focus instead on bookkeeping work for companies. They told the few individuals whose taxes they prepared to find someone else.
Luckily, one of them was a hungry newspaper ad salesman, and he convinced the brothers to run an ad - personal taxes for $5.
The next day their second-story office on Main Street was swamped, and H&R Block was born.
"It took John White to come up with the idea, " Henry Bloch said. "We didn't ever think it would be a big business."
Don't believe it, says White, who years later retired from The Kansas City Star as circulation director.
"That's Henry being a nice guy, " White said recently. "I was trying to sell an ad."
But you can count on Bloch repeating that story Monday when friends, family and others gather to celebrate his birthday.
He'll say, yet again, how lucky he was that the ad came out just as working Kansas Citians were receiving their W-2 forms from employers. Luckier still, the Internal Revenue Service, which at that time would prepare individual's taxes for them, decided to stop that service in Kansas City as a test.
If the Bloch brothers lucked into a business bonanza, they'd earned their big break.
The old bookkeeping business was a brain child of their agreement, spurred by their mother, to throw in together after World War II.
Henry and his older brother, Leon, prospected up and down Prospect Avenue offering small business owners everything from bad debt collections to window decorating. It wasn't long before Leon went back to law school, but Henry stayed at it.
He advertised for an accountant to keep up with the work and his mom was the only one to answer the ad. Hire Richard, was her advice and Henry listened.
They picked the name H&R Block in 1955, choosing a simpler spelling of how the family's name is pronounced.
Everyone agrees that Richard, who died in 2004, was the smarter of the two. Brilliant is the word they usually use.
But Henry has shown determination, sticking to what he does even when things don't go well.
Some early business decisions proved to be mistakes.
Henry and Richard established several New York tax offices to prove the company's mettle outside of its hometown. Unwilling to move to New York, the brothers agreed to sell the market rights for $10,000. It cost them more than $1 million to get the franchise back seven years later.
Friends say Henry Bloch drew capable lieutenants to the tax company and gave them room to do their jobs.
Examples include the late Jerome Grossman, who some describe as a right-hand man to Henry Bloch. Richard also is often credited as being more hands on running the company until he left after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
To America, however, Henry Bloch was H&R Block. They saw him in television commercials touting 17 reasons to get their taxes done at Block. His integrity and trustworthiness came through so well that other companies hired him to do their ads.
Mark Ernst, who has served as chairman and CEO of H&R Block, said Bloch became an icon inside the company, too. He recalls a 2005 Block gathering that Henry attended during the company's 50th year.
"It was like a rock star was in the room. He was just that big of a presence, " Ernst recalled.
Bloch the person, however, remains forever self-effacing.
Ernst said Bloch's genuine affection for Block employees and customers bred a culture of customer service there. Others call Bloch thoughtful, gentle and even sweet.
Friends say the humility is real.
"He's not a pretentious man despite his enormous success, " Wilson said. "He can own Monets and Van Goghs and go to the Westport Flea market for a hamburger and be very happy."The formative years
Henry Bloch is a full-fledged member of the Greatest Generation.
Born in 1922, he grew up during the Great Depression though his family fared well enough. His father, Leon Sr., practiced law and his mother, Hortense, quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson to her sons.
He helped defeat the Nazis in World War II, surviving 31 combat missions in the European theater. Bloch was a navigator on B-17's, a massive aircraft known as a Flying Fortress.
And when it was over, he came home to build an iconic American business that launched an industry.
Throughout, family has played a central role.
His math degree came from the University of Michigan because that's where the great uncle for whom he was named had offered to pay for the educations of his grandnephews and grandnieces.
And H&R Block was worthy of the cover story in the March 1990 issue of Family Business magazine. It noted a mother's nudge to get Henry to hire Richard and Tom's preparation to follow in his father's footsteps.
The shadow of family still showed a decade later when Bloch named the key people behind the company's success. He gave what amounted to a farewell address at the company's 2000 shareholders meeting, his last as chairman.
There was Richard, of course, and Grossman, company attorney and friend Ed Smith, longtime friend and director Sosland and son Tom, who had left the company to teach.
No one, however, mattered more than the last name on Bloch's list, Marion. She has been the center of his life, along with their four children, Robert, Thomas, Mary Jo and Elizabeth.
"She is the person I wanted to succeed for, " Bloch said at the meeting. "Without Marion, the journey would never have taken place."
The couple's fate has been less fortunate. She suffered a seizure in 1988 that led to discovery of a brain tumor. Surgery and aggressive treatment worked but have taken a long-term toll.
Tom, their second child, said his father's tribute was more than sentiment.
"While dad was off building this company during the day, she made certain that their lives revolved around family when he got home, " Tom Bloch said. "He knew he would be home by 6 o'clock every night because that was family time."
Henry brought work home but it waited until after supper at Marion's insistence on what harried couples today would call balance.
"He was probably more successful in business because he had that balance, " Tom Bloch said. "His life wasn't all about building a company and making money."