Mel Bloch, the “Pied Piper of Chess” at the Ocean Park Branch Library, passed away after an illness on Feb. 26, 2012. He was 65. Mel was a longtime fixture in Ocean Park, known to many for his prodigious intellect, wide-ranging interests, gentle spirit and eagerness to help others.

Certain neighborhoods in American art and literature resonate with a magnetism which attracts writers, artists, inventors, and entertainers. In Monterey, Calif. lies Cannery Row, which John Steinbeck implanted into the American consciousness with indelible characters in his novels. In Santa Monica, “quality of light” sparked the paintings and drawings called the Ocean Park Series, artist Richard Diebenkorn’s best-known body of work.

With Mel’s passing, Ocean Park has lost two of its iconic residents within the past two years, men Steinbeck would surely have loved to know. The second loss was Parke Meek, once a member of the famed Charles and Ray Eames design team. Parke passed away at age 86 in 2010. Mel had helped Parke manage his movie prop store, Jadis, and could be found there most Saturdays behind the counter.

I first encountered Mel in 2000 as a tall, bespectacled gentleman with a long gray ponytail when he applied for a library page job at the branch I managed, the Ocean Park Branch Library. To prove his strength for the job as “book-wrangler,” on my desk he abruptly propped his body horizontally in the air supported only by his palms under his chest! Albeit a tad peculiar, it was nonetheless an impressive feat.

Physical prowess was one of many facets of Mel’s remarkable personality. As a Yale graduate, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, a road manager for such musicians as Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow, and as an active parent in local schools, Mel brought many talents to the library. Prior to the advent of security staff at the branch, Mel often assisted with first-aid emergencies. He once comforted a dying man on the library’s front lawn and at another time he stabilized an accident scene at which an injured cyclist lay in the roadway of Ocean Park Boulevard.

For me, Mel’s most outstanding library accomplishment was his coordination of after-school chess clubs for children at Ocean Park and Fairview Branch libraries. He recruited interested families from an Ocean Park Farmer’s Market booth on Sundays then welcomed them to chess games Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

Mel was fascinated with the intellect of the children, and how that intellect could be developed in remarkable ways at the chess table. Several autistic children blossomed into confident chess players under his mentoring. Mel solicited donors among local store owners along Main Street for the numerous chess boards needed for 50 or 60 players who appeared each week.

Teen chess player and volunteer instructor Cody O’Connell wrote to the Santa Monica Daily Press on May 8, 2011: “Mel Bloch is one of the five great teachers I have had in my life and has done more good in the world than any other. He teaches people to play chess while making them smile, laugh and enjoy themselves. Amiable and knowledgeable, Mel is loved by almost all of the children and parents who came to the chess program.”

Mel possessed one of the most amazing minds I’ve ever encountered. As a gifted storyteller, he could recall a joke for any topic or impart fascinating details of historical incidents. He loved rare and fine books, and was adept at determining their provenance with the aid of his trusted laptop computer! He had the utmost sense of integrity in all his dealings.

Mel Howard Bloch was born Nov. 27, 1947 in Frankfurt, Germany. He is survived by his son, Chiron H. Bloch, daughter-in-law Sara Bloch and grandson Max Hannibal Bloch, who is due to be born any day now.

Perhaps a poem Mel wrote and sent to many of his friends in 2010 can best sum up his approach to a life well-lived:

As in the world

By Mel Bloch

as in the world I am

yet of it seek not to be,

I this confession make…

for all loft of language,

my passports filled,

though I have stood before the Mona Lisa,

shaken the hands of kings and saints,

whistled Mozart on the Great Wall…

despite the wisdoms of my father’s fathers’ fathers in my veins

despite the visions of a hundred mothers in my eyes,

I was mostly in small towns raised

where food is love,

sorrow has company,

joy even more so,

a promise is a lifetime affair,

a hand offered is proffered

at no risk to the taker,

where permission to ask

is given without the asking,

where small truths, shared,

are the dreams we speak of in prayer.

no matter where these dreams and truths are transported

they remain small and beautiful; perfect.

…and therefore, all that matters.

Celia Carroll was the Ocean Park Branch Librarian from 1997 – 2010. Jack Neworth also contributed to this column.

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