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Profile of W. T. Block a Historian

Reprinted from "Southeast Texas Business News" March 1996.

Written by Bill Deevy

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William Theodore Block, Jr. is known as W. T. to most people. Some of his old-time friends call him Bill.

"I don’t go by William," he says, cause I hate the name." He was born in Port Neches July 29, 1920, the son of W. T. "Will" Block, Sr. and Sarah Jane Sweeney. The marriage of Will and Sarah Jane, the second for each, also was blessed with another son, Lawrence Otis Block of Buna and a daughter, Alta Grey Block Fletcher, retired Nederland city secretary and tax assessor-collector. W. T. also had two half-brothers and seven half-sisters by his parents’ first marriages.

W. T.’s paternal great-grandparents, George and Augusta Block, emigrated from Prussia in 1846 and settled at Grigsby’s Bluff, now Port Neches. Their son, Albert, was the last postmaster at Grigsby’s Bluff before it became Port Neches.

Block’s mother was born and reared in Grand Chenier, La. Sara Jane was a tenth Generation descendant of Edward and Martha Sweeney who settled in Elizabeth County, Va., in 1655. W. T. was educated in the Port Neches schools until 1935 when his mother moved with her children to Nederland after the death of Will, Sr. in 1933. W. T. was graduated from Nederland High School in 1937.

Except during his service in the Army in World War II and immediately following, Block had never lived anywhere but the two mid-county cities.

While still in high school in the 30’s, he rode the lumber trucks to the sawmills of East Texas. He also worked one summer while in high school at the transmitter of radio station KFDM.

After graduation from high school, he worked in a lumberyard while attending Chenier’s Radio College in Beaumont. He was licensed in 1938 as a marine radio (wireless) operator and a radio broadcast engineer, as well as a ham radio operator. He operated a ham radio station in Nederland under the call letters W5GXA. At that time there were only three other hams in Nederland, viz., Jim Radfond, Matt Furth and Tommy Housenfluck.

Block enlisted in the anti-aircraft artillery corps of the U. S. Army early in 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor.

"I’m waiting for some" snotty-nose kid who wasn’t alive until 20 years after World War II to say we painted Rising Suns on our own aircraft, bombed Pearl Harbor and blamed it on Japan," said Block "That’s about the only story that hasn’t come out yet."

He was assigned to Camp Wallace, near Galveston, where he taught radio operating. He was transferred to the 78th Infantry (Lightning Division) in 1943 when Camp Wallace was closed. The division was shipped to England in 1944. The 78th Infantry distinguished itself during some of the bloodiest fighting in the European Theater of Operations.

The unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge, in the Hertgen and Ardennes Forests in Belgium and Germany, the Battle of the Rhineland and the Remagen Bridgehead. The division finished the war in Europe in April-May 1945 by capturing 150,000 German prisoners during a month of fighting in the Ruhr Pocket where the major German steel-producing cities, such as Essen, are located. The 78th lost 2,000 men killed and 14,000 wounded or missing during six months of combat. Twelve thousand of the casualties’ we’re curtailed during a two week period when it was the only infantry division at the Remagen Bridge on the Rhine. During the carnage, W. T. served with the 78th Signal Company attached to the 309th Regiment

Block recalls seeing 200 dead bodies at Remagen, killed by artillery. "There were heads and arms and legs in one pile and what dog tags they could find in another they didn’t know who was who," Block says softly. He then adds, almost inaudibly "Two hundred unidentified dead Americans." Obviously it is a sight he had not forgotten in the half-century that has passed.

The war in "Europe ended in May 1945. That same month W. T. met Maria Elisabeth Kothe in Melsungen, Germany. Betty, as she was known, was the town telephone operator where W. T.’s regiment was stationed. His initial meetings with Betty and her father, George, were of an official nature. Contact at a social level was verboten in accordance with a U. S. Army non-fraternization policy. The policy did not deter the 24-year old G. I. from surreptitiously visiting "Villa Waldhaus," the Kothe home, after dark. When the non-fraternization policy was revoked, Betty and Bill decided to marry. Receiving permission to marry was a lengthy, bureaucratic process.

Block was discharged in Germany. In order to remain in Europe, he had to either re-enlist or take a Civil Service job with the military. He opted for the latter and became a war department civilian under contract to the Army Air Corps, precursor of the U. S. Air Force. For the next two years, W. T. worked as a civilian communications officer at Fritzlar Air Base, about ten miles from Betty’s home. He was in charge of the message center and radio and Teletype circuits. He also operated ham radio station D4APT using a military l,000-watt voice transmitter that could be heard around the world. Block talked with people in the United States almost every day.

On June 2, 1947 the American and his fraulein were married in the Lutheran church in Melsungen. Betty’s pastor, speaking German, joined with U. S. Air Force chaplain Captain Helmut Reinke, a Lutheran minister from Minnesota, in conducting the ceremony. Reinke spoke in English. "We wanted an English language, U. S. Army license as well," Block explains. Later the couple was married in the burgomeister’s office in a civil ceremony. The latter constituted the official marriage.

The newlyweds were allowed to remain in Germany no more than 30 days after their marriage. So they went on a two-week honeymoon at Bad Tegernsee, an idyllic lake sequestered in a valley in the German Alps. Early in July 1947, the former soldier and his bride sailed for the United States from Bremerhaven. They arrived in Nederland, on June 29, 1947, Block’s 27th birthday. When the temperature hit 106 degrees F. a few days after their arrival, Betty was ready to have her Bill re-enlist and return to Germany.

Upon his return to Nederland, Block went to work in the Nederland Post Office. Block recalls, "In 1950 the Nederland post office was a royal mess with no city delivery in a city of 4,000 people. I asked the postmaster, Bill Haizlip, to establish a delivery route that would deliver the mail at least to street addresses on the edge of city. This would alleviate the mess and long lines at the general delivery window. Haizlip warned me that several businessmen were opposed to city delivery. To some degree he was right, but not entirely."

In 1950 Haizlip, apparently wanting no part of a city delivery plan, told W. T. to consult with Postal Inspector L. W. English in Beaumont about city delivery. English instructed Block to mark a map of the city showing every house, street name and block number. He also told Block to ask the city to erect concrete markers at all street intersections. The city complied.

In April 1952 Haizlip resigned as postmaster and asked Congressman Combs to appoint Block as acting postmaster. W. T. explains, "I was told if General Eisenhower, a Republican, were elected president I had no chance to become a commissioned postmaster since I was a Democrat appointee." W. T. became acting postmaster on May 1, 1952. Three prominent Boston Avenue merchants asked him to delay city delivery as long as possible on the grounds it would hurt downtown business. Block had checked the effects of city delivery in the neighboring city of Port Neches and learned it had no deleterious effect on downtown business there. During the next 14 months, city delivery was approved in Washington, D.C.

Later in ‘52, Block joined the Midcounty Jaycees in order to induce them to institute a mail box sale and a box-erection program. The following year the Jaycees sold and mounted over 800 house mailboxes. Block did more than his share of the work. He served as vice president of the Jaycees in 1955 when he resigned. Three years later he became assistant scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 52. He worked closely with the scouts until he enrolled in Lamar University.

W. T. was part of a group who organized the Holy Cross Lutheran church in 1957. He was not a Lutheran, but his wife Betty was. They had been attending Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Arthur intermittently for several years. He did not become a communicant member of the church at that time, primarily because of the time required for confirmation training.

Block had long aspired to earn a college degree, but a war and other factors had conspired to thwart that ambition. He went to see Celeste Kitchen; the registrar at Lamar and an old family friend from Port Neches. "I asked her what she thought my chances were of making it through to get a degree," W. T. says. "She asked me what it took to get through Nederland High School and I told her ‘study, study, study.’" She looked at me and said "Things haven’t changed one iota in 27 years."

In January 1964, 27 years alter being graduated from high school, W. T. Block, Jr. enrolled in Lamar University. He was working in the Nederland post office at the time. During each of the next six years, he completed 24 hours college work in night school, graduating in January 1970 with high honors, or a 3.73 GPA. That same year Lamar awarded Block a teaching fellowship in history.

Block next set his sights on a master’s degree. For the next four semesters, W. T. taught a course in American History 231 at night while attending graduate classes and working eight hour days in the post office.

In 1972, Block was transferred from his post as assistant postmaster in Nederland to Orange where he would be the postmaster. He held that position when he retired on January 1, 1973.

Three weeks after his retirement from federal service, W. T. became an employee of the State of Texas when he took over as director of the campus post office at Lamar University where he remained for the next ten years. He retired a second time in 1983.

In ‘73 and ‘74, the regimen of work and study caused Block’s weight to dwindle to 150 pounds. Part of the weight loss was due to his habit of forgoing lunch at the Lamar post office in order to research the microfilm files in the Lamar library.

W. T.’s master’s thesis was entitled A History of Jefferson County, Texas from Wilderness to Reconstruction. He had unknowingly started work on his thesis in 1970 when he uncovered the site of confederate Fort Manhasset, six miles west of Sabine Pass. A letter from his grandfather, a Confederate soldier, referred to Fort Manhasset near Sabine Pass. It seemed as if no one ever heard of such a fort.

W. T. went to Sabine in the summer of 1970 with his two youngest sons. They tromped the marshes using maps Block had obtained from the national archives. While the fort was being built, a federal collier named Manhasset came ashore near Sabine Pass and wrecked in a storm. People started referring to the fort that was being built near the wreck of the Manhasset as Fort Manhasset. W. T. does not know if the ship had a union navy crew or a civilian crew. Nor does he know if the ship’s name came from the Manhasset Indians who lived on Long Island in New York. There is a historical marker at the site of the old fort. Block promoted its erection.

Block relates, "I wasn’t trying to write a thesis just to get a degree. When I found out how little history had been written, I went to the Galveston Weekly News, Tri-Weekly News and Daily News from 1842 to 1914 and read page by page, making notes. That takes a long time."

Block’s original intent was to have the thesis cover well into the 20th century. However, the project grew so large he had to cut it off at 336 pages or the end of the Civil War. It ends with Lee’s surrender.

W. T. published his thesis in 1976. I did just about all the work," he relates. "I bought the sheets of paper, printed, collated and bound it. I borrowed $6,000 to publish it. Next I had to sell it. I sold over 800 copies in six months. That’s the book that got me started." W. T. donated his last copy of the thesis to the Nederland library in July of 1995.

Also in 1976, Block received the C. K. Chamberlain Award from the East Texas Historical Society.

In 1986 Block published Sapphire City of the Neches—a Brief History of Port Neches, Texas, a 456 page effort. The City of Port Neches proclaimed January 22, 1987 W. T. Block Day and presented the honoree with a plaque and a check for $500. The city manager raised $14,000 in private subscriptions to publish 1,000 copies About $20,000 was raised by sales of the book. This money was used to purchase new books for the Hebert Library in Port Neches. An almost life-size portrait of Block was hung in the main room of the Hebert Library.

At age 75 Block is making an effort today to rid himself of some of his mountains of paper. "I’m trying to get rid of that stuff to keep it from being burned." When this writer suggested some of his eight grandchildren might be more interested in his files than his children, W. T. replied, "You got that right. I have three sons who live and breathe and eat computers. They have degrees in either computer science or in electrical engineering. They are not interested at all in history, but my grandson, he wanted me to recommend a college where he could major in history. I told him, ‘Zeke, don’t major in history. It’s about as quick a way to starvation as we have in this country. High school coaches teach history. They don’t hire people because they’re history teachers. That’s what they load on a coach where he needs to have a class.’"

W. T. received a $250 award last September for his book East Texas Mill Towns and Ghost Towns, Vol. I. The East Texas Historical Association selected the book for the Ottis Lock Endowment’s Best Book on East Texas History Award for 1995 although the book was published in 1994. The Piney Woods Foundation funded the book with a $50,000 grant. Volume II came out in September of this year, and Volume III, the final book in the series, is scheduled for publication in 1996.

In January 1995 W. T. received an award from the Texas Gulf Historical Society for 20 years of writing—not for any particular book.

Block’s book Sour Lake, Texas: From Mud Baths to Millionaires, 1835 to 1909 was published in July 1995 by the Atascosita Historical Society through the beneficence of a Houston woman who donated $7,500 toward its publication. This was the culmination of a 20-year endeavor. A month after publication, Block was featured at an autograph party for this book at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty.

Block says, "Ruth Scurlock of Beaumont taught me much of what I know about the technique of writing. She taught at Beaumont High for many years and then later at Lamar. There was nothing around Beaumont in the old days that she didn’t write for. I also took two creative courses at Lamar from Dr. George DeSchweinitz.

I don’t belong to any writers’ organization. I’m just too tied up. I had a book published last year. I’m having three books published this year, and I just finished the two books that will be published next year. My writing schedule has been too heavy.

I’m one of those people who suffer terribly from not being able to go to sleep. If I lay in bed an hour or two and can’t go to sleep, I’ll get up and get on the computer. I’ve always got something to go into. I guess I spend about six hours a day at my writing."

Block is a prolific writer. He has four unpublished books. Copies of each are in the Henson Library in Nederland, the Mary and John Gray Library at Lamar University, the Tyrrell Historical Library in Beaumont, the Port Neches and Orange libraries, the Sam Houston Regional Library in Liberty, the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State libraries in Austin. Those unpublished books are: Emerald of the Neches—The Chronicles of Beaumont, Texas from Reconstruction to Spindletop (576 pages); Cotton Bales, Keelboats, and Sternwheelers – A History of the Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades (160 pages); Frontier Tales of the Texas-Louisiana Borderlands (390 pages); Mud, Gushers and Sour Lake Molasses - A Tale of Texas Second Oil Boom Town (135 pages). In addition, W. T. has had published many other shorter historical writings in the Beaumont Enterprise, East Texas Historical Journal, Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, Yellowed Pages, Frontier Times, True West and Old West.

"I don’t believe there was ever a day when I wasn’t interested in writing," Block says. My writing brings on a lot of correspondence, mostly from people who overestimate my knowledge of genealogy. I try to help as much as I can. I’m not too interested in genealogy, but I think everyone ought to know two or three generations of lineage. The trouble with the Blocks is that most of them were just poor dirt farmers.

"I write everything in longhand before I put it in the computer. I wish I knew shorthand. I have never tried to make a living by writing. I’ve made some money here and there and I’m grateful for that. I was paid $850 for a story in the February 5, 1994 Beaumont Enterprise." That issue of the newspaper featured a supplement on the heritage of Southeast Texas. W. T. contributed nine articles on different subjects to that history.

"I have tried to sell fiction, particularly short stories," he continues, "I’ve seen as many rejection slips as anyone. I’ve even written some poetry.

Betty and W. T. had four children—three sons and a daughter – W. T. "Billy" Block, III, Rebecca, Bobby and Barry. Betty Block died on May 18, 1992, after a liver transplant and years of being a near invalid.

Betty’s best friend, Helga Woods, lost her husband a few weeks after Betty’s death. W. T. and Helga married on August 21, in Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Helga is a Methodist so the Blocks attend services at First Methodist Church and Holy Cross Lutheran every Sunday. They also participate in social events at both churches.

In his role as historian, W. T. has known both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as the saying goes. It is a thrill to uncover something that has been unknown previously. It is agony to be cognizant of sites of historical significance that have been destroyed by ignorance, indifference or spoliation.

As an example of the latter, he cites the Indian mounds at Port Neches. He explains, "Port Neches from time immemorial until 1800 had six huge Indian mounds. There probably weren’t more than 250 Indians living there at any one time. In the course of between 1,000 and 2,000 years and I say that on the basis of the fact that an Indian vase that was dug up across Sabine Lake was dated at 500 A. D. by Louisiana State University. These Indian mounds were each 20 feet high, 60 feet wide and over 200 feet long. They were filled with bones, artifacts, pottery shards and arrow points. The Beaumont Enterprise of 1881 reported that Beaumonters liked to come to Port Neches on a Sunday afternoon and hunt for arrowheads.

"What is now Port Neches Park was a favorite spot for people from Orange to drive their steamboats over and have their picnics under the oak trees. Then they would hunt arrowheads. By 1900 nothing was left. My father was born in Port Neches in 1870. He played on those mounds and probably helped tear them up. Most of the mounds were carried away as shells in steamboats. The mounds were predominantly shells from shellfish accumulated over the centuries. By 1900 the greatest archaeological site in the State of Texas had been totally destroyed.

"I have an article from a 1841 edition of the Houston Morning Star newspaper that mentioned that the greatest Indian site in the state was 12 miles south of Beaumont on the plantation of a man named Grigsby. During the Civil War they built a place called Fort Grigsby where the Texaco Asphalt plant is located. They tore down a burial mound to build the log defenses of the fort. Incidentally, Grigsby was one of the original incorporators of Beaumont. Joseph Grigsby is listed with Nancy Hutchinson or Nancy Tevis, whichever you want to call her, and the rest of them."

Block laments, "So much of our history has gone by the wayside and nobody cares anything about it. It seems obvious to this observer that someone does care. His name is W. T. Block. Not only does he care, but also he is doing something about it. He is creating written records of the past for the benefit of his grandchildren and their grandchildren.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote, "A page of history is worth a volume of logic."

Bill Deevy is a free-lance writer who lives in Beaumont, Texas

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