Little can be said about Hannah Block that hasn't already been said many times over. She was a grand dame whose influence radiated far beyond her petite frame.
It wasn't so much what the lady did – although she did much in her 96 years. It is what she meant to Wilmington.
She came to symbolize the heart and soul of the city's World War II home-front effort. Whether running Civil Defense drills, raising money for the Red Cross or entertaining soldiers on leave at the USO building that bears her name, she embodied the city's determination to support the troops and help the U.S.A. win the war.
In her spare time, she made time to help found the Azalea Festival pageant, produce the first Miss North Carolina pageant and hold public office.
Those who never had the pleasure of making her acquaintance may be puzzled by the attention paid to a woman whose most memorable contributions came decades ago. But upon the rededication of the renovated USO building in 2005, former StarNews Editorial Page Editor Chuck Riesz summed it up, with style:
It's common for politicians to name public facilities for people who've contributed to the public good. It's rare that the honor is as appropriate as renaming Wilmington's Community Arts Center 'The Hannah Block Historic USO.'
It would have been equally accurate to call it 'The Historic Hannah Block USO.' Her history in Wilmington has been lengthy, public-spirited and exuberant.
A Virginian brought here as a bride, the former New York City night-club shantoozy played the piano and sang for the troops who gathered in the Second and Orange streets USO during World War II. (There were 10 other military gathering spots around the county, including a USO for black troops at Ninth and Nixon.)
She also contributed to the war effort by volunteering at the Red Cross, serving as head lifeguard at Carolina Beach and – surely not least – taking a flirty flock of 60 young women to dances at Bluethenthal Field, Camp Davis, Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg.
In later years, Mrs. Block served on the City Council and as our first woman mayor pro tem. She helped raise money to bring the battleship to Wilmington. She restored a series of houses in the early days of the historic district revival. And she fought to save the old USO building – at that point, the Community Arts Center – from demolition.
As the city prepares to renovate that venerable veteran and return the lobby to its appearance during the days when lonely GI's jitterbugged with 'Hannah's Girls,' it's the perfect time to rename it for the lady whom historian Wilbur Jones calls 'Mrs. World War II Wilmington.'