From Government Policy to Forest Walks

Alumnus Tom Block presides over a 15,000 acre forest purchased by his great grandfather in the 1920s.

For 21 years, Tom Block spent his days working inside offices in Washington D.C., and then in New York City, examining government policies for J.P. Morgan. Now, he spends the bulk of his days outside as an active trustee for a 16,000 acre forest in Kentucky.

As descendant trustee of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, a privately owned forest created by his great grandfather, Block is the first in his extended family to move back to Kentucky and work on shaping the forest's future. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be a steward of my family’s legacy,” said Block, who retired from J.P. Morgan in 2008. After years of serving as a Bernheim trustee and on the executive committee, he was named the first descendant president in January 2017. “Getting involved in land conservation and sustainability has been so satisfying,” he said. “I’ve developed an incredible appreciation for the natural world.” Block has since returned to his trustee role after serving as president for a transformative three years.

The forest’s 600-acre arboretum, designed by the famed landscape architectural firm Olmsted Brothers in 1931 – Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park – and its 40 miles of hiking trails, were intended as a refuge. But the forest also enables crucial forest research. Recent studies include controlled forest burns and the rescue of endangered bat species. Additionally, Bernheim boasts a large, edible garden, an extensive outdoor sculpture collection, and one of the most recognized artist-in-residence programs in the U.S.

Block’s great grandfather, an immigrant, art lover and bourbon baron, bought the land just outside of Louisville in 1929 with a vision. Its rolling, green hills reminded Isaac Wolfe Bernheim of Germany’s Black Forest, and he imagined fostering a swath of land where locals and out-of-towners could come to enjoy an intersection of nature and art.

Upholding its legacy is a mission Block doesn’t take lightly. On a given day, he might show a potential donor around the arboretum, accompany staff on a forest hike, work with the café manager, or review the results of the latest research project with the forest’s executive director. It’s a far cry from working for a major bank in midtown Manhattan, though the skills he learned at J.P. Morgan have been transferable for Block.

Block, who ran a congressman’s office in his mid-twenties, started his career at JPMorgan Chase’s predecessor Chemical Bank in 1987. He stayed with the bank through four mergers, and as Global Head of Government Relations, he worked directly with former JPMorgan Chase CEO Bill Harrison and the firm’s senior management team.

He helped start an EU government relations program, a first for the bank, and later created a new position as U.S. Government Policy Strategist, which allowed him to focus on the U.S. government policy’s impact on capital markets. Block worked on high-level issues, such as South Africa lending and recalls a career highlight: meeting Nelson Mandela at a dinner in New York City during a celebratory trip Mandela took following his release from prison.

“I loved my job at J.P. Morgan,” Block said. “Every morning I came in knowing something exciting was going to come across my desk. My experience at the firm really helped me to become a better manager,” a skill that serves him well at Bernheim.

Rooted in history, primed for growth

Today, Block is excited to see the steady growth of Bernheim, including the 2018 acquisition of an additional 1,000 acres for land conservancy, bringing the forest’s size to 16,000 acres.

Adding to its allure for visitors, and in a nod to life imitating art, the forest commemorated the 90th anniversary of Block’s art-loving grandfather’s founding of Bernheim by commissioning Danish artist Thomas Dambo to construct three sculptures of characters from a popular Danish fairytale using recycled wood from the region.

Photography by Jenny Zeller, Artwork by Thomas Dambo, 2019

Between the recent art installation and land acquisition, the forest has seen a growth in visitors, including a record-setting 60,000 visitors during a one month period in 2019.

Finding work-life balance (in nature)

In addition to his commitment to the forest, Block consults on government issues for a major Japanese financial institution and a U.S.-based equity research firm, and mentors political science students at the University of Louisville while still making time for travel – most recently to India, China and Australia. Family is also important to him. “Being a grandfather is incredible,” he said.

Block has one piece of advice for fellow retirees: keep your mind active. “Using your J.P. Morgan experience for a philanthropic passion is a wonderful way to improve yourself and your community,” he said. “Researching environmental issues, helping to provide clean water for future Kentuckians, that’s something I’ve developed a passion for.”

He relishes guiding visitors through the forest and sharing its rich history. “It’s one of my favorite things to do,” he said.

This article was updated on April 2019.

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