Janet Block Interview
This is file #12, cycle 4. Today’s date is June 18, 2019. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Janet Block, who was the wife of Zenas Block who passed away in 2008. She is going to talk about Zenas’s vision for SOAR and hopefully anything else she wants too. But first we are going to start with…
JM:What is your name?
JB:Janet André Block
JM:Your relationship to Zenas?
JB:We were married in August of 1988 in Lakeville.
JM:When was his birthdate?
JB:His birthday was December 7, 1916.
JB:He was born in Manhattan.
JM:I would like you to tell me a little bit about his background. You said that he was a chemist?
JB:Yes, he grew up in The Bronx in the New York City public schools. He was a chemistry graduate of City College. He started out in making food products. He made K rations for World War II (also instant coffee Ed). He went on to work and became a CEO of a baking company until he was 60 at which time he retired and went into teaching. He taught at the Stern School at NYU, the graduate business program.
JM:He taught form 1980 to 2005.
JB:Yes and he stopped teaching in the full time program in the early 2000s. He stayed with NYU and taught the executive program that they had until 2005.
JM:How did he come to this area?
JB:He was a chemist and at one point after the war in the early 1960s, he was asked to come up and help Pat Winter who had the House of Herbs. He came up and helped her with her vinegar.
JM:She had “cloudy” vinegar.
JB:She had “cloudy” vinegar and he said he introduced her to Louis Pasteur. He taught her how to “uncloud” her vinegars. He got to be great friends with her and also with the gentleman who ran the place, named Art Jones who is a local Salisbury person. (He was the father of Nancy Bayerdorfer. See her interview). That was how Zenas got introduced to the area. He tells that she offered him a job at that point, but he said he was not ready to retire. He decided to stay in New York. Actually it wasn’t until the 1960s that he came back. So he was originally here just after World War II but decided not to move up here. He went on and had his career around New York City. In the 1960s he and his first wife Lillian
decided that they need a weekend house closer to the city. They had a weekend house on Cape Cod but it was too far away to commute. They decided to look for a place about 2 hours away from New York City. Zenas said, “Why don’t we go and look at Salisbury?” He had remembered Salisbury. That was one part of it and the other part of it was, he got interested in cross country skiing. He absolutely became devoted to it. Elyse Harney taught him how to cross country ski. You know they teach everybody here. Par of the reason he retired and went into teaching because he said he wanted to ski all that he could.
JM:Where did the idea for SOAR come from?
JB:The first of many years that Zenas lived up here it was simply a weekend place as many people have. He would hang out on his property and enjoy his cross country skiing, but did not know a lot about what was going on in the community. He over the years gave people his business advice and helping people start businesses of their own. For example when Jackie Merwin was starting her first business, which was National Regulatory Services, someone sent her to Zenas. Ascendant was her second business. (See Jon Higgins interview) He was asked to run for the Board of Finance (See Bill Willis interview) He loved it.
JB:I think it was sometime in the 1990’s. He was on the Board of Finance for a while before he started SOAR. When he was on the board of Finance, he realized what the situation was with funding for the schools. He loved Salisbury, he adored it and he wanted to give it something that wasn’t small. He wanted to give something significant. He had a big picture. He did a bunch of research and started something called “E=MC2” Fund which involved sending kids to summer programs for gifted and talented children as well as teachers that wanted to learn more about STEM careers. (Science, Technology, Engineering Math). He did that for a couple of years, but he felt it was a little too precious and wanted to do more. He asked the principal of Salisbury Central School Mr. Gold this, “If money was not an object, what would be the first thing you would do?” He said, “I would start an after school enrichment program.” (Mr. Gold was principal 1999-2002. Ed.) Karen Lundeen who was a kindergarten teacher at the time. She is currently on the board of SOAR (Seek, Originate, Aim, Reach). They created this program in the school. At the same time Zenas came into some money so he gave a chunk of money ($600,000 ED.) himself and then raised money while he was still running the program. It was his belief that you have to prove it to people that it worked before you could ask them for money. He funded it for several years himself.
JM:Yes, he did fund it himself for several years, but how did the Berkshire Taconic Community foundation get involved?
JB:They are set up to help people like Zenas who want to start a non-profit business, but don’t have any track record and don’t have any 501(c3) status. What they did with him was to start a fund at BTCF so he was able to donate his gift to the BTCF. The school did their thing and reported to the BTCF and received money from the fund to provide for the SOAR program.
JM:Did the school have to do matching funds?3.
JM:When did the program actually start with the children?
JB:It will be 20 years next year, so it began in 2000. At this point he was easing out of his full time teaching load, so he took all of that energy which was a lot and focused it on the Board of Finance and also on SOAR and some other things he was doing.
JM:Who was on the early board?
JB:Ward Belcher, George Garfunkel, Jim Dresser came on later, and Rod Lankler, (See Rod Lankler interview) Will Little and Ward Belcher were two major financial supporters of SOAR initially. Wendy Hamilton came on the board later. She was early and a major fundraiser too for SOAR. She did the fundraising. Another person who was very involved was Caroline Burchfield (See Caroline Burchfield interview). She may have been Program Director, I don’t know. (It was Anne Ohlinger. Ed.) Zenas did not want to come in and overlay his ideas onto the school community: he wanted it to come from the teachers, kids and parents. Karen Lundeen and Caroline Burchfield were critical people in helping shape the program and what it became.
JM:What kinds of activities were included at the beginning?
JB:They did drama; they had not had drama to the school for quite a while. The kids liked that. They did arts, ceramics, and advanced math with Art Eddy. The key element in this was both requests from the students and parents and also using people from the community who were willing to teach. The compensation is minimal. Some people donated it back. It was a six week program one afternoon a week of 2 -3 hours. It had to be something that was to give kids a flavor of something. They also did robotics. Zenas knew they were starting at the high school because he had funded that. Obviously they wanted to encourage follow-through. He then knew Patricia Chamberlain pretty well and the high school principal so he was always trying to make sure that whatever they were doing could relate if possible to what the kids were going to be doing in SOAR. They were typical kinds of things: they did Japanese one year all sorts of things like that and something that would never be in the curriculum.
JM:Since it has been going for 20 years, what future plans do you envision?
JB:I’ll admit I am more ambitious than most. What I would love to see happen is for us to grow our endowment so that it totally covers the basic program that we have now which I think is working quite well. There could also be additional kinds of enrichment activities, some of which we do now, but I would like to do more. For example we brought in Shakespeare & co. to work with a group of 8th graders. We brought in the Red Cross to do a babysitting course for 8th graders. Those are good courses: they tend to cost a little bit more. I would like to be able to raise more money to cover the more expensive course as a routine. I want to keep the flavor that Zenas envisioned. The third thing I would really love to do is to find a way to support the teachers in a more direct way and in a way they are really excited about. I know there are courses for teachers or even a sabbatical situation. I would
like us to do as much as we can for the teachers. That is the third leg that we have not gotten to yet. That is what I would like to see happen.
JM:You gave me a quote that I would like you to say again.
JB:Zenas used to say, “The quality of the community is reflected in the quality of the school.”
JM:Is there anything else that you would like to add to this before we close?
JB:I think if we go up 20,000 feet and look at the whole camp, this is the kind of thing that happens in retrospect because of the type of town it is. Zenas knew where he was, and he knew he was working with a receptive group. It is the type of program that makes you want to do more and make an extra effort. He really cared about the community and the kids. That is what makes this community a great community. SOAR has become an attraction for the young families, not a ton of them, but enough to make a difference. They decide to live in Salisbury instead of going to other towns. If they are moving up from New York, many are looking for a good public school system. Not that I am disparaging private school which work well for many people. If you want to send your child to a really good private school that is mixed with all kinds of people and know they are going to get a great education, this is the place. SOAR helps that.
JM:Thank you so much.