Friday, January 17, 2014

Robert F. Blanck dies: Seminary trustee's deep faith led to a lifetime of church service

A lifelong church leader and a career attorney, Dr. Blanck once served as treasurer of his church denomination and in 2010 celebrated 40 years of service as a trustee for The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, most of them as chair
Dr. Robert F. Blanck, Esq. Attorney Dr. Robert F. Blanck of Skippack Township, PA, liked to tell the story about how at the age of five he first set foot on the campus of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) and "fell in love with the place." His father had taken the family on a Sunday afternoon drive and paused outside the campus along Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy. Together they walked up the steps to the tree-covered school. His fondness for the seminary only deepened. Blanck, an attorney and devoted church leader on national, regional, and local levels, died January 16, 2014 at Pottstown Memorial Hospital. He would have been 88 on January 19. Before moving to Skippack Township, Blanck was a long time resident of the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, near the seminary’s Mt. Airy campus.

Blanck was still a trustee at the time of his death, and served as board chair from 1976 to 2003. Before his stroke shortly before Christmas 2013, Blanck still drove most work days to catch the train in Chestnut Hill to his center city Philadelphia law office. His specializations included estates, real estate, tax law, and working with non-profit organizations. He was a part of the Law Offices of Schubert, Gallagher, Tyler and Mulcahey. He was generous in counseling others and became close with many of his clients, who often sought and trusted his advice. Blanck professed to having had many mentors himself, who paved the way for his development as a churchman and devoted volunteer on the national, regional (synodical), seminary, and congregational levels. The mentors included his father, Oscar, a church leader in West Lawn, PA; his pastor during his youth, the Rev. Ernest A. Weber; Dr. Robert Goeser and Dr. Robert Marshall, members of the Muhlenberg College faculty. At Muhlenberg, Blanck was active in the Muhlenberg Christian Association as well as a member of the national history and philosophy fraternities. He had always been an enthusiastic and engaged student, beginning at Wilson High School, where he played the bassoon in the Allstate bands and orchestras before becoming a student conductor in Senior year. In addition, he was a member of the debating team for three years and edited the sports section of their high school newspaper.

Blanck graduated from Muhlenberg in 1949 after a tour in the Air Force, where, during World War II (from March '44-May '46), he both served as a sergeant radar mechanic and briefly volunteered to direct a chapel choir at a base in Shreveport, LA. During conversations with Goeser, Blanck recalled, "I came this close to going off to seminary." But he eventually fell back on a pledge he made to himself in seventh grade "to pursue the practice of law." He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1952.

The decision to practice law did not limit Blanck in any way from also pursuing the Gospel and deepening his faith in his life. In addition to 40-plus years of service as seminary trustee (1970 until his death), Blanck served the church in a myriad other ways, including treasurer for the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), a predecessor body to the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, from 1982 to 1987. Other church roles included membership on the management committee for the Office for Administration and Finance of the LCA, service on the LCA Executive Council, executive board of the Eastern Pennsylvania and later the Southeastern Pennsylvania synods of the church, and numerous congregational leadership posts, particularly at Trinity Lutheran Church, Germantown in Philadelphia, where he served as president (1966-1993), sang in the choir, and taught Sunday School. One of his adult education students there was the late, noted LTSP faculty member the Rev. Dr. William Lazareth. He served as a lector where he currently worshiped at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale.

Dr. Blanck and his wife Barbara
Dr. Blanck and his late wife Barbara
Blanck faced many professional and personal challenges over many decades, including caring for his wife of 62 years, Barbara, when she began suffering from dementia in 2009. Through it all, Blanck maintained that the gift of faith sustained him completely. "It is not something I think about," he said. "It is a part of me. I don't turn it on and off. My faith guides every decision and step I take and influences my choices and the way I try to live my life." Barbara died in September 2011.

His favorite seminary memories, which he had shared in an interview in June 2010, included the surprise party given him in 2003 when he stepped down as board chair, and his involvement in festivities honoring various presidents, including the retirement observance in Ocean City, NJ, for the Rev. Dr. Robert Hughes, which he played a major role in planning but at the last minute couldn't attend due to illness. "These gatherings always bring together those who love the place," he said. "And I enjoy those times very much."

As seminary board chair, Blanck served under several presidents and saw many changes to the seminary's curriculum and campus. Those changes included re-accreditations, the upgrading of the Hagan Administration Building, including the addition of an Amphitheater in the 1970s, and, more recently, construction in 1998 of the Wiedemann Center, a new dormitory suitable for the housing of seminarian families, and the planning and later construction of The Brossman Learning Center (2005), the seminary's first structure dedicated to student classrooms. The latter construction changed the climate of the campus, he said.

A challenge of note during his board tenure, he said, was to communicate the strong Lutheran identity of the seminary, even as it embraced other traditions in its learning community - Episcopalians, United Methodists, and the wide variety of traditions connected with the seminary's 34-year-old Urban Theological Institute, which serves to educate African American church leaders in the region. In his view, "this ecumenical community spirit has taught and is teaching us much of what it means to be Christian in today's world," he said. "In taking this approach, LTSP has not in any way compromised its Lutheran identity." Blanck also called a highlight the school's efforts to keep up with technology advances through its construction, teaching, and improvements to its 100-plus year-old Krauth Memorial Library. Blanck always gave the seminary's faculty and staff huge credit for its capacity to endure through tough times like the recent recession.

Dr. Blanck donning a Reading Phillies cap
Dr. Blanck dons a Reading Phillies cap, presented at an LTSP banquet honoring his many years of service
Regarding the state of the present and future church, Blanck remained steadfastly optimistic despite the splintering of the church's polity over issues such as those involving human sexuality. "In general I think people today are less bound to the institutions of the church than they once were," he said. "And they are less accepting of authority, so splintering is more of a possibility. In my opinion, a lot of our differences are not so much based on scripture as they are political. We must be willing to keep sorting these matters out and also be willing to understand that we can take a less dogmatic stance in certain areas and move closer not only to Lutheran unity but also to Christian unity." Through such willingness "we have the chance in essence to become stronger in Christ."

In his spare time, Blanck loved watching sports, particularly baseball, basketball, football, golf, and lacrosse. He was a lifelong fan of the  Philadelphia Phillies and its Reading Phillies farm club (their "number one fan," he often liked to say). He enjoyed attending games in Reading,
the closer choice to his Montgomery County home. For relaxation, he also spent most weekends and many weeks off in summer with his family in Ocean City, NJ, where his wife's parents have owned a house since 1954. There, he played board games, constructed puzzles, and went for walks on the beach and boardwalk. When he was not devoting his time to his grandchildren, Robert was an avid traveler and was constantly looking for new trips to take around the world. Finally, he loved classical music and often attended concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra. As family friend Debbie McNutt quickly came to understand, in the few years that she helped look after his house, "Bob liked to have fun. He had a ready smile and was appreciative of what life had to offer and of those around him."

Blanck was awarded the honorary degree of LLD (Doctor of Laws) by Muhlenberg College in 1976, and recognized by LTSP in 2001 with the honorary degree of DD (Doctor of Divinity).

Blanck is survived by a daughter, Meredith S. Marando-Blanck, and her husband, Stephen, of Audubon, PA; his grandson, Robert L. Blanck, of King of Prussia, PA; two granddaughters, Amanda C. and Stephanie M. Marando-Blanck, of Audubon, and a great-grandson, Robert F. Blanck, of King of Prussia.

The funeral service will be held Friday, January 24, 2014 at 10:00 am at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1000 W. Main Street, Lansdale, PA 19466. Reception immediately following the service. There are no visitation hours. Memorial contributions are requested to the Dr. Robert Blanck Fund, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, 7301 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19119, or The Jimmy V. Fund, 106 Towerview Court, Cary, NC 27513. Condolences can be sent to Meredith Marando-Blanck, 804 Mill Grove Drive, Norristown, PA, 19403.

this post was updated

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