Robert O’Block is a direct product of the American Dream. Born into a working class immigrant family, Dr. O’Block used education and hard work to overcome adversity and launch a career that would, before too long, change the face of forensic science in the United States.
William O’Block, Dr. O’Block’s grandfather, arrived in America via Ellis Island. Neither he nor his wife spoke English, they arrived with very little money, and had no employment secured. However, before the two left the island, William was approached and offered a job as a coal miner in Mindenmines, Missouri. Life in the coal-mining town was hard – mining families lived in company-owned shacks, paid high rents and had little access to medical care. Wages were too low to cover the high cost of rent and food, and many miners lived off the credit provided to them by the company, burying themselves in debt they would never be able to repay.
It was into this atmosphere that Dr. O’Block’s father, Louis, was born. As medical care was difficult to obtain in the mining community, Mrs. O’Block died giving birth to her third child. Louis and his sister Fritz were sent to live with their maternal aunt and her large family during the years of the Great Depression.
When Louis found himself unable to finish high school, he went to work for the railroad and spent a large part of his life in the industry. The work was difficult, but Louis considered it an improvement over working in the coal mines. However, just a few short months before he was to receive his 20-year pension, the railroad company fired Louis. This was a common practice in the years before federal labor laws were developed that would protect workers from this type of practice. Early in 1950, Louis met and married Rose Kelley, a young woman who had three children of her own from a previous marriage. He spent the rest of his working life doing various manual labor jobs to support his family, which quickly grew to include baby Robert, but found that his lack of education made it virtually impossible to find work that would enable him to care for his family.
Eventually, the couple split. Rose was forced to give up custody of her two older sons, because of her inability to support them, and she and Robert moved into a one bedroom house in Pittsburg, Kansas. Rose’s mother, who was confined to a wheelchair, and Rose’s oldest daughter Lila (who was pregnant) soon moved into the house as well. Rose worked two jobs to support the family, but was soon taken ill from exhaustion. It was not long before she, too, was unable to work and had to apply for state welfare benefits.
Dr. O’Block came to be very aware of the condescension and discrimination faced by the poor, but instead of being oppressed by the circumstances of his upbringing, he chose to rise above them. By the age of 12, Dr. O’Block had observed that the only discernible difference between his family and their prosperous neighbors was the level of their education. At that moment, he determined that education would be his lifeline out of poverty.
At age 13, Dr. O’Block began working at a local driving range, picking up golf balls. He also worked as a bus boy at a local restaurant and paid his own Catholic high school tuition by doing janitorial work at the local F.W. Woolworth store. His efforts created in him an industrious attitude, appreciation for the value of a dollar and a strong work ethic. When he was 17, his mother Rose became ill and died. Dr. O’Block did not let her death derail his efforts to change his life, however. Inspired by her memory, he completed his senior year of high school and enrolled in the Kansas State College of Pittsburg. It was there that he discovered his passion for the subject of criminology and started down the path that would eventually lead to the creation of one of the most recognized forensic science institutions in the world, the ACFEI.
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