Originally published July 29, 2012
Henry W. Bloch walks into his 90s this week with a slight hitch. And his memory sometimes needs to be refreshed about the details of events.
There have been so many moments in his full life.
Family man, entrepreneur, civic leader and philanthropist headline his biography.
We wanted Kansas City to hear some of his best stories and he shared these recently, with a few prompts from his son Tom Bloch. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I walked up the four flights, the 80 steps, to your office. How often do you do that?
A: I try to do it five days a week. My doctor said - I told him what I was doing - and he said don't ever quit. I do hold the railing, just in case I trip.
Q: You're known as Henry Bloch, the H in H&R Block, the Bloch in the Bloch School of Management and the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I could go on. How well does someone have to know you to call you Hank?
A: That's a good question. Nobody does. My brother did, that's about it.
My name is Mister. No matter where I go it's Mr. Bloch. We get letters from the dean of the Bloch school that say Tom and Mr. Bloch. I try to discourage it; please call me Henry. Jonathan Kemper, at Commerce Bank, he always says Mr. Bloch. I say please, Jon, call me Henry, and he says 'OK, Mr. Bloch.'
Q: It is hard now to think of H&R Block as a family business but that's how it started.
A: It sure was. Tom worked while he was going to college here. He was in some of our commercials when he was a little boy.
I used to travel, visiting our offices quite a bit, and I tried to take one of our four children each time for a selfish reason. When I met with one of our managers, I didn't want to stay up all night talking, so if I had one of my children with me I could say I got to get my son or my daughter to bed. That worked really well.
Q: You're America's tax man. What do you think should be done with the tax code?
A: What's happening in America is we're getting very rich people and very poor people. Really, there's hardly any middle class anymore.
Wealthy people don't need that kind of money. There are a number of really wealthy people who feel that same way.
My tax rate is quite low. Should be higher.
You can say 'Why don't you pay more?' I have no desire to pay more just to be the only one to do it. I would like to see them pass a law where I would pay more, where all the wealthy people would pay more.
I do believe, on the other end, everybody should pay some income tax, even if it's a dollar, to live in this wonderful country - which might be tough for a lot of people.
Q: I understand you voted for Barack Obama as president. What attracted you to him?
A: I don't think I should get into politics.
Q: Do you think you'll vote for him again?
A: I probably would, yeah. Mainly because I think of the Republicans as being for the wealthy people and I don't agree with that. And I'm a registered Republican, living in Kansas.
Q: You and Marion have amassed an impressive collection of French impressionist paintings. You're going to donate them to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. You've joked you couldn't afford them today.
A: Not joked.
Q: There's already a portrait of your wife at the Nelson. How did Andy Warhol come to paint it?
A: I wanted to get my wife's portrait done. She's a beautiful lady. So I asked the director of the Nelson, Ted Coe at the time, who should do it. He suggested Wayne Thiebaud. So I called Mr. Thiebaud. He said I'd be glad to.
Then I went back to the Nelson and said do you have any paintings by Wayne Thiebaud? They said we have two.
One is a gumball machine and the other a long narrow painting of a woman in a bikini just standing there. I looked at those two paintings and I called him back and said I changed my mind, I'm not going to do it right now.
Then we went to a football game, my wife and I, and we were sitting in the press box. And there was a man in that box from New York. He worked for an art gallery. I said, 'By the way, do you know a good artist?'
He said 'I know just the man.'
He told me who it was. I never heard of him, but this man was an expert. So I went to New York with my wife and we went to his studio. I saw these awful paintings. And I noticed none of them were signed.
This is Andy Warhol. I said if you paint my wife's portrait you'll sign it, of course? You want a signature on the painting. And his manager was standing behind him and he went like that to me (gestures meaning no). I said nevermind. He wouldn't have agreed to it. He expected people to recognize his art.
Then I got back home and I got more worried about him painting. They're very, you know, you see a can of soup? Some of them were really wild.
But he painted a great picture. And he painted four of them.
Q: (Tom Bloch) Where was she posing? Tell that story.
A: The company had an apartment in New York but that wasn't much to have a portrait done in. I called up a hotel on Fifth Avenue. I said I'd like a room for one night with a fireplace in it, that my wife could be there to have her portrait painted. He came in - he uses a $10 Polaroid, they say - took a couple of pictures and left.
A complete waste of money because there's no background in any of his paintings.
It turned out beautifully.
Q: You were asked to join the Kansas City Country Club and then were rejected. How reluctant were you to submit yourself again to the club?
A: You have to understand what the rejection was. It was one person, and I have no idea who it was, but that's what I understood. It was one person who maybe didn't want a Jewish member. That's the only way I can describe it.
After I was not accepted, (professional golfer) Tom Watson got into the act and resigned. You must know he was married to a Jewish girl at the time.
Then I got questionnaires from newspapers all over the world because of Tom Watson. They said can you give us a quote on that. I said I'll be glad to. I would never say anything bad about the club. They said tell us what is your quote? I said, 'It's the first time I ever made the sports page.'
Q: What do you think about H&R Block today?
A: There have been some disappointments but I think the present CEO is trying his best to do a good job.
Q: Your friends say you're too humble, always giving people too much credit. You've said your success has been 99 percent luck.
A: But that is a fact. I could give you half a dozen cases where it was nothing more than luck.
There would be no H&R Block if it wasn't for World War II. I was a navigator in B-17s and the government sent me to Harvard when I came back. And I read a pamphlet from Professor Sumner Slichter that got us into helping small businesses, which was the beginning of the business.
Q: All right then, looking back 90 years, what should we give you credit for?
A: My family, I guess, would be about the only thing. And I've had such good people working with me in the company.