Honoring the Block philanthropic legacy
Attorney Sam Block has a strong sense of place. His attachment to the people and institutions of Vero Beach was instilled by his parents, Arthur and Marian Block. It has served him well in dealing with the challenges he faced, particularly in early years, as a member of Vero Beach’s first Jewish family.
Life wasn’t always easy then, yet he persevered, following his parents’ example, and went on to become a community leader, raising two daughters in the process who are following his lead.
Monday night, February 9th, Temple Beth Shalom, which his family helped found, will host a dinner at the Moorings Club, honoring three generations of the Block family. The dinner is a fundraiser for the temple, but Sam Block sees it primarily as a way of honoring his parents, and their pioneering philanthropic efforts in the Vero Beach community.
Almost three-quarters of a century ago, the Blocks saw this area as their promised land — and they were determined to leave it a better place. Sam says his father engrained in him the idea, “If you had 250 million people living in the United States, and half of them have in their minds that they’d like to come to Florida, then why would you not take advantage of that?”
“And if you think about it,” says Block, “that’s still true today.”
Arthur Block first visited Vero Beach in 1936. The son of a rabbi who emigrated from Prussia, himself a graduate of NYU in business and Juilliard in violin, Arthur came south from Pittsfield, MA, looking for a potential market for a retail venture. By the time he met Marian in Daytona Beach, where her family had vacationed for years, a move to Florida was very much on his mind.
“This is the land of opportunity and this is what we need to do,” he told his two brothers.
Arthur and Marian initially lived in Indianapolis, her home, where Sam and a sister, Carol, were born. A decade later, after Arthur came home from the war, the Blocks moved to Vero Beach and had two more children: Henry, who in later years ran the Royal Palm Convalescent Center, and Charlie, now an architect still practicing in Vero.
In their new home town, Arthur and Marian wanted to build in McAnsch Park but couldn’t. Neighborhood deed restrictions forbade blacks or Jews. “They had to go before the City Council,” Sam recalls. And they did.
The Blocks moved into the McAnsch Park house in 1950. Sam’s mother, Marian, was still living there when she died in 1994 at the age of 81, apparently watching her beloved Florida Gators play the University of Alabama. Tom Lockwood had brought her home at halftime from a Gator get-together at a local restaurant.
“Marian Block used to refer to me as her ‘fourth son,’ ” says Lockwood, who came to town to help develop John’s Island. “She was way ahead of her time. She was the matriarch of that family. She was a doer. Yes, Jewish people were a minority here. But the Block family enjoyed a very fine reputation in the community that had nothing to do with their religious beliefs.”
This past weekend, Sam Block served as a groomsman in Tom Lockwood’s wedding.
Starting with a shoe store, the Block brothers developed a chain of ten department stores that spanned a wedge of the state from Daytona Beach to Orlando to West Palm. Vero Beach was home base, and Block’s Department Store was a fixture in Vero’s downtown, next door to Alma Lee Loy’s children’s shop.
Arthur’s brother, Manny, ran the shoe department, Loy recalls. Arthur and Marian were there every day. When the store closed for the night, the Blocks shifted their focus to countless other community projects.
The Blocks were founders of the Vero Beach Museum of Art, and active with the Vero Beach Theatre Guild, the Education Foundation, Dollars for Scholars, the Hospital Auxiliary, the Sunshine Center, March of Dimes, and a long list of other causes.
“Mom ran the hospital thrift shop practically singlehandedly,” says Sam Block. “ The pink ladies practically had to interview with my mom to pick up their uniforms, which she kept in a closet in our house. When she died, it took five people to do the work she did.”
“She was successful and she was a gogetter; she was such a determined worker,” recalls Loy. “She was a great advocate for everything in this town having to do with health.”
Alma Lee Loy will speak at Monday’s dinner.
Block’s Department Store remained open until 1967, when Miracle Mile and the Treasure Coast Plaza were built and the store was overwhelmed by competition. By then, the Blocks also had opened Royal Palm Convalescent Center. The concept was novel for its time: a caring, dignified place for elderly patients to live.
“The nursing home industry was terrible then,” says Sam Block. “This was a private pay center and it became renowned for its program and how it treated the patients.”
If the center signaled an early awareness of ageism, anti-Semitism in certain segments of Vero’s population was still alive, with stinging remarks occasionally punctuating memories of the family’s many successes.
Sam Block, graduating from high school in the ‘60s, was named outstanding senior, president of his class, and captain of the football team. As he took his place at the dais to recognize the class valedictorian and salutatorian, a man in the audience leaned over to the woman next to him and said, “What’s that Jew doing up there?”
The woman was Marian Block. The remark reduced her to tears.
Some offenses were even more direct. Sam Block, the high school quarterback, remembers the football coach passing out packaged ham-and-cheese sandwiches at away games. “He would always open mine up, take out the ham and throw it on the ground and say, ‘Here, Jew.’ ”
When the Block children missed school for the high holidays in September and October, they were given unexcused absences, and “zeros across the board.”
The cruelest act of all came at a moment when Block was proudest of his heritage. He had just finished months of preparation for his bar mitzvah, commuting to Miami Beach by train every Friday to study with a rabbi there, returning Sunday night. “I logged ten thousand miles on that train,” he recalls.
On his first day back to school after the big ceremony, he proudly wore a medallion commemorating his accomplishment. Block remembers the moment the kids spied it around his neck. They dragged him to the playground’s jungle gym, tied him up with rope, he says, and beat him with a wooden board. “I ended up at the hospital,” he says.
But there were glimpses, too, of an inclusiveness to come. Block’s best friend in early childhood was Bill Carr, son of a Baptist minister, who went on to become the famed center on the University of Florida football team in the Steve Spurrier era, and later athletic director.
Carr will speak at Monday’s dinner.
The Blocks, for the most part, kept their unpleasant experiences largely to themselves.
“I probably didn’t even know it was going on,” says Alma Lee Loy. “There weren’t many of us outside of the family that really recognized (their being Jewish) at all. The people I knew, we didn’t think about things like that. To me, the only thing that concerned me was that they didn’t have any place to go to church.”
In the 1950s, the Blocks helped forge an alliance of Jewish families on the Treasure Coast and decided to build Temple Beth El on Orange Avenue in Fort Pierce, not by raising money but by going out on weekends and actually laying bricks, raising the structure themselves.
Eventually most of the members of Temple Beth El relocated to Port St. Lucie, and undertook building a new synagogue there. So in 1979, the Block family and other members decided to start a synagogue in Vero.
“I put an ad in the paper, and the first meeting was at the Community church,” says Block. “Three hundred came to see what it was about. I had everybody sign up. Within 30 days, there were 20 who said, we would like to have a Jewish presence here.”
As the community expanded, and more Jewish families moved to town, the synagogue grew. Temple Beth Shalom now includes 190 families.
If there were tough lessons at home, they came of love and high standards. Block vividly remembers coming home with a B on his report card – in typing. “I was grounded for six weeks,” he says.
His parents’ expectations remained lofty in spite of Sam’s early bout with polio that left him paralyzed and in an iron lung in St. Mary’s hospital in West Palm Beach. Sam was nine years old.
“I told my parents that if I couldn’t play Little League, I didn’t want to live.” In fact his hospital roommate died, as did many others that year – 1954. But Sam survived, enduring treatments with steaming Army blankets so hot the nurses handled them with tongs, placed against his bare skin in 45 minute sessions in the belief that his muscles would come back to life. “I remember when my parents finally said, ‘Let’s see how your muscles are,’ and they stood me up, and I fell on my face, and the doctors told us I would never walk without the aid of crutches or a wheelchair.”
He came home to Vero and began intensive painful therapy with orthopedic specialists. “I would scream, ‘I’m not leaving until I can walk.’ ”
Eight years later, as a senior in high school, he ran the hundred yard dash in 9.9 seconds.
Today at 63, he runs eight miles every other day.
“I learned a lot from my parents,” he says. “They persevered in a different way and were able to overcome a lot of hardships. You get that feeling of forced leadership when you go through things like that.”
When Block graduated from Stetson Law School and began interviewing at big law firms, his father diplomatically proposed finding work in Vero. Holding his hand close to the table, he asked his son, “Do you want to start out here? Or,” he continued, raising his hand high, “do you want to start here?”
Sam Block got the point. He interviewed with attorney Buck Vocelle’s grandfather, and joined the firm 35 years ago. Six years later, he went out on his own. Now he is joined by his daughter Katy Block, 31, like her father a graduate of UF and Stetson, and a nephew-in-law, Jeff Pegler, a Cornell graduate who went on to UF law school, who is married to Block’s niece.
Katy Block and her sister, Bekah, both went to St. Ed’s – Bekah Conti, 28, is now an admissions officer at the school and girls’ basketball coach. Katy Block is her assistant.
By the time Katy had her Bat Mitzvah, Vero Beach horizons had clearly broadened. “Her whole class came and so did all her teachers,” says Block.
“You turn things into a positive,” says Block. “I’m very conscious of these things in the world. You never erase them, it all sticks in your mind. But you use them as a tool. You reach out. That was my approach.”
Like his parents, Block is infused with a drive to do good works in Vero Beach. “I try to give as much as I can, and I’m not talking about just dollars. If there’s a person I can be a role model to in my own town, I try to be that. You be the best that you can be.”
Carol Kanarek, who moved to town with her husband, Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek, in 1975, like Tom Lockwood also felt “adopted” by Marian Block. “Marian scooped me up and off we would go to Fort Pierce for temple meetings,” she remembers. “I was so grateful to have someone take me under her wing.”
“She was a force in a small town, when we were still a small town, a force to be reckoned with, and she was not to be argued with,” says Kanarek. “If Marian Block said to do something, you either did it, or you chose another life path.”
Arthur Block, on the other hand, was a “gentleman among gentlemen, the sweetest man,” Kanarek recalls.
The Blocks’ giving was “a quiet philanthropy — very quiet,” she says. “They’ve never, ever wanted to draw attention to themselves.”
“The Block family was a good family, not because they were Jewish, but because they were good human beings and enjoyed a very fine reputation in the community that had nothing to do with their religious beliefs,” says Tom Lockwood.
But Sam Block still finds himself the go-to guide to Vero Beach when a new Jewish family arrives. “I’m very proud to do that,” he says. “Nobody can ever take away when you do good things.”