U of L Partnership Helps Backside Workers Stay Healthy as a Horse

A Good Eye for Art and Volunteerism

By John Chamberlain

It's not every day that someone turns 400.

That was one of the reasons why Steven L. Block chose the observance of Rembrandt's birth to donate his rare Rembrandt engraving to the University of Louisville last April. The Easter season also was appropriate to note the significance of the 1636 print, titled Christ Before Pilate.

JesusOver the last year it has been just one of an impressive collection of etchings collected by Block and displayed at U of L's Allen R. Hite Art Institute. Fine art students and visitors linger over the works of Picasso, Grant Wood, Currier and Ives and other noted artists in the "Mixed Bouquet" exhibit.

Block, retired, often returns and gazes on the wide-ranging collections. They're like old friends to him. He points out subtle details in the etchings and the history of the works and artists who created them. They have been a big part of his life—and of his own personal journey in American history.

Starting classes at U of L prior to his 17th birthday, Block recalls that he was a "very shy freshman." But he did not stay that way. Parking his 1951 Plymouth wherever he could on campus, he mingled with the older students and the many military veterans attending U of L. He also got involved in several organizations.

Block served on The Cardinal staff as an associate feature editor. "I was trusted by the editors to interview the likes of George C. Marshall, Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Farnsley and others," he says.

But he is most proud of founding Views, a literary and art journal that gained national attention for the university. "U of L gave me opportunities which helped me gain confidence that I could do anything I wanted to."

Block needed all the confidence possible as his later studies in Harvard and a career in Washington, D.C. brought him interesting challenges. Serving with various antipoverty programs in President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, he worked under Sargent Shriver to help create VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) and to extend its programs to the deep South. One special project sent him to Alabama where he helped bring in outside volunteers to upgrade black schools in troubled Wilcox County's school system.

"Fortunately, I had family with deep roots in Montgomery and was able to meet with Governor Lurleen Wallace. We had tea in her rose garden and discussed the project to help the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) bring in volunteers without local interference," Block says.

As it turned out, Block's secret meetings in a federal armory between white school officials and black ministers on school issues were undisturbed. "I knew who was the head of the Ku Klux Klan in the area, but he must have been told to stay clear."

His stints with VISTA and other volunteer programs kept him away from Kentucky, but he collected Kentucky antiques and memorabilia as reminders of home. One item was a Grant Wood print of a horse that vividly reminded him of a ride on a snowy day in Kentucky. Then he discovered several James McNeill Whistler lithographs a dealer friend had uncovered in England at a good price.

Although not planned, Block was now a print collector.

Living in Washington gave him ample opportunity to enjoy the area galleries and his knowledge of art and his collection expanded—with a growing focus on Whistler's work. By 1984 he owned the largest private collection of Whistler lithographs and it became part of a national Smithsonian traveling exhibit program during the 150th anniversary of Whistler's birth. The tour concluded with a major exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in Washington.

Block brought his Whistlers home to Kentucky in 2004 as a gift to the Speed Art Museum, making the Speed a major center for the study of this important American artist.

Now Block's Rembrandt plus other notable works will call the Hite Art Institute home as Block is expanding his gift to the university. Fine arts chair James Grubola praises Block's "good eye for 20th century art. The Block Collection plays very nicely to our strengths and greatly expands our print collection. They'll enrich our resources for both teaching and research."

Block More than a philanthropist, Block also is giving of himself. Knowing his reputation in organizing volunteers, officials at the Red Cross national call center, which is based in Louisville, asked for Block's help after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Almost all national calls after 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time are answered in Louisville. Block organized a team of night volunteers and answered the phones himself from August 30 to Christmas last year.

"The phone would ring constantly, people trying to find displaced family members. One lady in a shelter was in dire need of a kidney dialysis. We also connected soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to loved ones," Block says.

Now, having donated so much of his beloved art collection, Block is faced with a difficult question as he prepares to move into a beautiful, refurbished Old Louisville home. "What to hang on the walls?"

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