Magazine Feature / People

Late DU philanthropist established University’s first fully funded chair

Alumnus Leo Block, the philanthropist who contributed more than $2.5 million to DU, died Aug. 31. He was 94.

“His energy and intellect belied his age,” says Chancellor Emeritus Dwight Smith. “Leo was a delightful and generous man to whom we in the DU community will remain indebted.”

Block is the namesake for the Leo Block Alumni Center and the Leo Block Endowed Chair.

“Simply put, Leo loved DU. He credited DU with giving him an international perspective and a passion for learning,” says Scott Lumpkin, associate vice chancellor in University Advancement.

“I first met Leo in 1985 at the 50th reunion of his DU graduating class early in my tenure as chancellor,” Smith recalls. Smith says Block talked about being editor of the Clarion and that he was somewhat of a rabble-rouser during his days as a DU undergraduate.

“He invited me to visit him in San Antonio, an invitation which I accepted, and those visits continued both there and in Denver,” Smith says. The conversations ultimately led to Block’s intentions to help DU, “which at the time was struggling to emerge from a difficult period of deficits, diminished enrollment and negative publicity,” Smith says.

Block contributed $1 million for an endowment that provided special academic enhancements that budgetary constraints at the time precluded. It was the first fully funded chair at the University.

“[The chair] brought a series of visiting professors to DU for 20 years, beginning with former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm [who has remained at DU as executive director for the Institute for Public Policy studies],” Lumpkin says.

“Because of its timing, this gift and the addition of Lamm to the faculty represented both a real and morale-boosting enhancement for our academic community at a critical juncture in our history,” Smith says.

In 2008, Block permanently assigned the chair to the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Leo Block was born Nov. 25, 1914, in Denver and attended East High School and the University of Denver, where he graduated with a social science degree in 1935.

“As an undergraduate, Leo was inspired by Professor Ben Cherrington [founder of the now-named Josef Korbel School of International Studies],” Lumpkin says. “As a member of the International Relations Student Club, Leo would help host visiting dignitaries and academicians that Cherrington recruited as speakers for a regular series of lunch presentations on international relations in downtown Denver.”

Lumpkin says the lectures brought a world perspective to Denver in the 1930s when it was still a fairly small city.

Block served in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II. After returning home, he joined his cousin Edward Block in San Antonio in a wine bottling business. The two formed Block Distributing Co., now called Republic National Distributing, which became the largest wine and liquor-distributing outlet in south Texas.

In 1992, Block received DU’s Evans Award — the University’s highest alumni honor —in recognition of his professional achievement, humanitarian service and support of the University. In 1996, DU’s Leo Block Alumni Center was dedicated. Block also donated scholarship funds to the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“Everyone that knew him loved the fact that he had such a great sense of humor,” says Block’s niece, Beverly Simmons of Cleveland. “He used to call himself G.H.O.U.L. for ‘Good-Hearted Old Uncle Leo.’ He often wrote parodies and poems for special occasions, displaying his wits and gift for writing.”

He was also a lover of art, an avid traveler, accomplished bowler and could play “The Yellow Rose of Texas” on the shofar, she says.

“His proclivity toward verse was one of many characteristics that entertained us during his visits on campus,” Smith says. “As I once told him, I was both awed and mystified, however, by one whose favorite dish was sweetbreads.”

Block is survived by his wife, Erma; sister Betty Simmons of Denver and many nephews and nieces.

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