Daily News

S. Prestley Blake: the (Sometimes) Quiet Philanthropist

By George O’Brien

I found myself heading to the local Friendly’s over the holiday weekend and ordering myself a Jim Dandy.

I’ve always loved Jim Dandies. They are the quintessential ice-cream sundae, a banana split on steroids, if you will, and ordering one always brings me back to my youth. It’s a blast from the past, and it remains unchanged from more than a half-century ago, in my case. Except … I used to be able to finish one in a single sitting. Now, although I could do so if I really, really felt like it, I consider it more prudent to take it over two nights — although you have to eat the banana the first night; once it freezes, you can’t do anything with it.

On this occasion, I dedicated my Jim Dandy to Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake, who passed away last week, and I couldn’t get him out of my mind as I plowed through the whipped cream, nuts, and eventually the cherry, which wasn’t on top for some reason, but more toward the middle.

Some people get to live a full, rich life. And then, there’s Pres Blake. He lived to 106 and filled every day of every one of those years with adventure. He never, ever stopped coming up with ideas and intriguing projects — like building a replica of Monticello when he was 100. And, according to all accounts, he was still driving right up until near the end — probably in one of his Rolls-Royces.

Likewise, some people leave their mark on a community and a region. And then, there’s Pres Blake. He gave us the Jim Dandy, the Fribble — I lived on Fribbles the summer before I went off to college, and that’s barely an exaggeration — and the patty melt. But far more important than that, he shared his wealth with the community in a way that is truly profound. And for those lucky enough to get to know him, he shared his considerable knowledge and insight, as well.

Carol Leary, the now-retired president of Bay Path University, is one so fortunate. I called her in Florida and asked her to talk about Blake, whom she came to know on a number of levels, and her remarks help put his remarkable life, career, and contributions to the region in their proper perspective.

Over the course of 25 years, she said, they became strong friends, and he became a mentor to her as she was working hard to take Bay Path to heights that could not have been imagined when she arrived in 1994.

She started by talking about the advice he gave her during early get-to-know-each-other meetings. She was the new president of a college he had served as a board member for 20 years and had donated money to in generous fashion.

“He started as a mentor to me; he gave me some key advice that I kept as part of my presidency until the day I left. And I shared it with others, because I thought it was valuable,” she recalled. “The first thing he said was, ‘you must be, above all else, ethical — keep that as one of your values throughout your presidency; don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t take money. Whatever you do, you must remain ethical.’

“He also told me to watch my finances and not take on any debt if I could do it, watch enrollment — every time we got together, he asked me what our enrollment numbers were — and don’t be lavish, don’t drive a Cadillac; he thought that would be inappropriate for a college president,” she went on, adding that she listened, and instead drove a Buick and then a series of Toyotas.

The best advice he gave, though, was to make sure she always had a strong board. And like those other pearls of wisdom, she followed that one religiously.

When the subject turned to philanthropy and Blake’s many gifts to preschools, colleges, and universities across the region, including Springfield College, Western New England University, Bay Path University, Springfield Technical Community College, American International College, Northfield Mount Hermon, and many more, Leary said his generosity stemmed from a basic philosophy.

“He always believed in opportunity,” she explained. “He was a self-made businessman — he left Trinity College after one year and started the business with his brother — but I think he understood that, for the everyday person who couldn’t afford to start their own business, an education was absolutely essential.”

And while the Blake name is on buildings and scholarships at several of these institutions, including Bay Path, what Leary says she remembers more is what she called his “quiet philanthropy,” the acts few know about, but that have profound impact and say a lot about the man.

She recalled a few instances, one involving a young woman he met sitting on a bench while vising India in the early 1960s.

“He met this woman and her father, and he asked her what her dreams were,” Leary recalled. “And she told him she would love to go to school, and he talked about Bay Path, because he was on the board. Through that meeting, he made it possible for that young woman to come to Bay Path. She eventually returned to India, but visited Mr. and Mrs. Blake almost every year after she became an adult with her husband and small children — and they became very close.”

There are countless stories like that, she said, adding that most people don’t know about this quiet philanthropy and the way it changed the lives of so many people.

And Carol Leary is certainly not the only one telling stories like this these days.

“We were saddened to learn of Pres Blake’s passing,” Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper said. “He was a great friend of Springfield College, and his philanthropy enriched and opened possibilities for thousands of students. While we accept this news with sadness, we also acknowledge a life very well-lived with immense gratitude that we were a part of it.”

Clearly, Blake inspired many in this region with his philanthropy, his words of wisdom, and certainly his zest for life and adventure.

All that, and the Jim Dandy to boot.

This was, indeed, a life well-lived, and he was an individual who helped countless others to live well. That’s what we should be celebrating as we look back on 106 remarkable years.

George O’Brien is editor and associate publisher of BusinessWest.