UCLA chancellor Gene Block tackles economy, civic responsibility

UCLA’s new chancellor, Gene D. (for David) Block, got an early lesson in both hard work and Jewish tribalism when, during summer vacations, he helped his father, a dairy products distributor in Monticello, N.Y.

“I had two milk routes along the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains,” Block recalled. “I got up at 4 a.m. for my wholesale deliveries to the large camps. In the early afternoon, I’d switch trucks to service the retail customers in the bungalows.”

The tough part of the job was to keep milk labels apart for the different Chasidic customers.

“I had to juggle six kinds of kosher milk,” Black said, “because the Lubavitchers needed a different kind of certification than the Satmars, and so did the Belz, the Ger Chasidim and so on.”

Still, the job had its compensations. Delivering milk to the great Borscht Belt hotels — The Concord, Grossinger’s and others — Block caught the last of the legendary comics of the era.

Block, 59, has completed his first year as UCLA’s top man, after spending most of his career — from assistant professor to vice president — at the University of Virginia.

He earned an international reputation as a physiological psychologist and continues to focus his research and teaching on biological clocks, the brain’s electrical time-keeping system.

Block is known to his colleagues as a workaholic and multitasker but also wins praise for his patience and optimism. He displayed his patience and humor during an hour-long interview at his UCLA office and needs all his optimism to tackle the problems at hand.

These include a shaky state budget, which provides about 30 percent of UCLA’s funds; continued efforts at student diversity within legal parameters; and, lately, protecting researchers working with animals from politically motivated physical attacks.

He prides himself on good communication with students, and the campus has been largely spared ethnic or religious friction. Of some 37,500 undergraduate and graduate students, 36 percent are white, non-Hispanic; 33 percent are Asian and Pacific Islanders; 12.5 percent Chicano/Latino, and 3.5 percent African Americans. The remainder chose not to identify their ethnicities.

According to the best estimates, there are some 3,500 to 4,000 Jewish students, or roughly 10 percent of the student body.

Block’s grandparents on both sides came to the United States from different parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, mainly from the Czech, Hungarian and Transylvanian areas, in search of a better life.

The chancellor relishes talking about his paternal grandfather, who served 25 years in the U.S. Navy under the name of Frank May and saw action in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.

After discharge, he decided to buy a farm in the Catskill area but found the going tough. So his wife opened a boarding house for New York summer visitors, and when all the rooms were rented out, Block’s grandparents slept in the barn.

Block’s parents were Reform Jews, but young Gene (his real given name) celebrated his bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue.

“We were sort of the typical American Jewish family in transition,” Block remembered. “We didn’t keep a kosher home, but my mother had two sets of dishes and never served shrimp.”

His father spoke Yiddish, of which Block has retained a smattering.

When Block was a biology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he made what he smilingly described as his greatest contribution to his faith.

“I had a post-doctoral student, who, it turned out, was also a cantor. So I ‘volunteered’ him to the local synagogue, and even after he moved elsewhere, he always returned for the High Holidays.”

At UCLA, as in Virginia, Block attends High Holy Day services at the campus Hillel Center.

Block married his high school sweetheart, Carol, 38 years ago, and they are the parents of two adult children. Among his hobbies are tinkering with cars and his collection of 50 antique radios.

Block seems to be enjoying his new job and is high on UCLA, especially its “remarkable students — they’re dazzling.” When they graduate, he predicted, “they will be a transformative generation, crucial to the technological and economic development of California.”

In the interview, Block stressed UCLA’s responsibility to the larger Los Angeles community, especially in improving the public school system.

A major project is working together with the Los Angeles Unified School District on a future community school, on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, whose students, mainly from minority groups, will be in small classes, with an emphasis on science and information technology.

Also getting under way is an interdisciplinary research center on the UCLA campus, dealing with acute civic problems, including childhood obesity, homelessness and gang violence.

All of this will take money, not the least from private donors, and Block knows that one of the main tasks of any modern university head is to spearhead fundraising efforts.

He does not discriminate against donors of any race or creed, but he is well aware that Jews have been among the most generous of UCLA supporters, as the names on many campus buildings and labs testify.

“I feel certain that the Jewish community will continue its traditional support of higher education,” Block said in parting.