A lifelong champion of the common man, Wallace Bless himself had an uncommonly common up bringing.
Born in 1912 in a log cabin in Kentucky, he grew up in a German-speaking farming community, where he helped his parents on their farm.
These humble beginnings served as an unlikely platform for Mr. Bless in a life’s journey that eventually led to Richmond and a lifetime of public support for human rights causes.
Mr. Bless retired owner of one of Richmond’s long standing headquarters for social activism, the Main Street Grill in Shockoe Bottom, died Jan. 28 of liver cancer. He was 88 and lived in Richmond.
His German roots and an early life spent speaking German factored heavily into Mr. Bless’s sympathy towards others, said his son, Barry Bless of Richmond “He was an immigrant in a country of immigrants, and it helped him identify with others outside the mainstream.”
Mr. Bless left home at 15, worked his way through high school and served at a psychiatric hospital during World War II. He studied psychology at the University of Cincinnati, married, and for thirty years worked in insurance.
“I was in the establishment, but I was schizophrenic,” Mr. Bless said in 1992. “I never quite adjusted. I kept seeing injustices.”
In 1948, he and his wife, Ruth Vornholt Bless, moved to Richmond, where they later lost sons Jerry and David to cystic fibrosis. Mr. Bless left sales in 1969 and bought the Main Street Grill.
During the day, mostly people from the neighborhood populated the six tables, four booths and bar under two old ceiling fans, listened to the juke box and consumed the grill’s simply fair. Mr. Bless was a natural-foods champion but did not force his tastes on others.
At night, the grill became a forum where individuals could meet, perform, read poetry or show their art. The walls were decorated with notices of human rights meetings, lettuce boycotts, anti-nuclear literature or anything anyone wanted to post.
The grill was the bus-departure point for civil rights demonstratios the site of fund-raising events and meetings of groups devoted to social justice and a whistlestop for activists worldwide.
Mr. Bless was among a small group in the early 1960′s working to improve race relations in Richmond. He was a founder of the Richmond Human Rights Coalition and served as vice president of the Richmond Council on Human Relations.
As its program director, he was instrumental in aiding the Poor People’s March and, although nonviolent himself, helped bring Stokley Carmichael to town.
“Wally was a brave man to bring me to Richmond in 1967,” said Carmichael. A self-proclaimed “world citizen,” Mr. Bless traveled the globe to promote understanding among peoples.
He was among the first U.S. citizens to visit China after it was open to the West. He was a founder and member of the Richmond Chapter of the U.S. China Peoples Friendship Association.
He traveled to what was then Soviet Union to promote glasnost and perestroika, to Cuba, India, Africa, Korea, Mexico and Europe and had camped across the United States with his family.
After he retired at 72 in 1985, he got up early to cook breakfast for the homeless at the Daily Planet, founded a conversation group called the breakfast-Bunch and was active in the 50-plus group at First Unitarian Church.
His first wife died in 1980. Survivors, besides his son, include his wife since 1990, Ester Garber.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at First Unitarian Church, 1000 Blanton Ave.
A celebration of his life, featuring the Ululating Mummies, also will be held Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Main Street Grill, 1700 E. Main St.