In 1935, John Block was born on a farm in Illinois that had no electricity. When he was old enough to go to school, he rode a pony to get to the schoolhouse, which lacked water and indoor plumbing and which had only 10 students. Block enjoyed farming and became an ardent member of the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America. He won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was a star debater.
Block served as a second lieutenant with the 101st Airborne Division. Later, he became an airborne ranger. Upon completing military service, he returned to his boyhood farm and paid his father $5,000 to take him on as a partner. He expanded their operations from 300 acres to 3,000, and from having 200 hogs to 6,000.
After serving on the Illinois State Farm Bureau from 1972 to 1976, Block became the Illinois director of agriculture in 1977. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan chose him as U.S. secretary of agriculture. The country was in recession at the time, and Block was instrumental in developing the 1985 farm bill, which restored economic stability to the farm sector. "I tried to move the industry toward less dependence on government subsidy and more dependence on income out of the marketplace," he says.
From 1986 to 2003, Block was president of Food Distributors International, a trade association that represents food distributors. He also continued growing his farming business, and turned it over to his son. Block has been involved in several nonprofit associations, including the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs. "We are working to bring free markets to the former Soviet states," he says.
Block says one must balance work with family and friends "to a point where you are supporting and serving them," he says. "That's how I define success."
He tells young people to work hard and understand early in life that their performance in work and in personal relationships will be judged. "I encourage youth to accept new challenges," he says. "You have to be able to relate to people, and they have to have a good opinion of you."
Block believes in integrity, trust, loyalty, and keeping a positive outlook on life. "It has been a special honor for me to receive the Horatio Alger Award," he says, "because it is an institution that recognizes people for the ideals I believe in so strongly."