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Celebrating the life of S. Prestley Blake, philanthropist and benefactor

Irene Rotondo

One hundred and six years is the span of multiple lifetimes — that many years, strung together into just one person’s life, seems almost impossible.

Stewart Prestley Blake, (or as he was more commonly known – S. Prestley Blake) completed his centurion feat in a way that was inspirational to any who knew him, personally or not. 

A beloved benefactor of Springfield College, the co-founder of Friendly’s Ice Cream chain, a celebrated entrepreneur, and generous philanthropist, S. Prestley Blake passed away at 106-years old on Feb. 11, 2021, in Stuart, Florida.

Blake had ties to the city of Springfield that ran extremely deep. After attending Trinity College in Hartford, CT for just one year, he returned home to Springfield. In the summer of 1935, 20-year-old Blake and his then-18-year-old brother Curtis Blake borrowed $547 from their parents to open their first ice cream shop, right on Boston Road. 

They called it Friendly Ice Cream, and had high hopes that the lure of competitively priced 5 cent two-scoop ice cream cones would bring lots of customers and lots of profit.

Their first day open was a success– the Blake brothers made over $27, and the business just took off from there. They opened their second location in West Springfield in 1940, where they expanded the menu from just ice cream to include diner-style meal options. 

By 1950, the chain had begun to offer take-home gallons of ice cream that are now sold in all grocery stores across the U.S. and as of 1974, there were over 500 Friendly Ice Cream locations across the Mid-Atlantic and New England. In 1979, Pres and Curtis Blake famously sold the business to the Hershey company for over $160 million.

Though Pres Blake stepped away from the Friendly business for the majority of the rest of his life, he was able to focus on his other philanthropic interests instead. Blake’s wife, Helen Blake, was a graduate of Springfield College in 1967, and has personally stayed involved with the College since. She held a seat on the Board of Trustees and is now recognized as an Emirate Trustee.

While it is unsure exactly what drove Pres Blake to be so enamored with Springfield College, many assume it was because of Helen’s association, coupled with his love for his hometown, and his love for supporting those pursuing their dreams. 

In 1980, Blake donated $500,000 towards the construction of Springfield College’s PE Complex. In honor of his large donation, Springfield College named Blake Arena, a part of the PE Complex, after him.

Blake’s generous donations to Springfield College did not stop there. In October of 2006, it was announced that Pres Blake and Helen Blake donated $2 million to support the College in its fundraising campaign called “Leadership for the 21st Century: The Campaign for Springfield College.” 

This was one of the largest single donations in the College’s history. In return, the College renamed Wilbraham Hall to Herbert P. Blake Hall in honor of Blake’s father. Herbert P. Blake had worked for several years for the Standard Electric Time Company, which was the company that had previously owned the Herbert P. Blake Hall building before Springfield College purchased it from them in 1990.

Pres Blake was very close with the founder of Springfield College, David Allen Reed. President Mary-Beth Cooper stated that she believed him to be the only other living person that was such a large part of Springfield College who actually knew Reed.

President Cooper recounted that Blake had talked to her about his former relationship with Reed, amongst other things about the city of Springfield that he held close to his heart.

“The last time I saw [Pres] was when he came to the President’s Gala,” said President Cooper. “He and Helen came to the Gala, and they were only going to come for cocktails, and they saw all the activity and all the fun and they stayed until 11:30 that night. 

“He was a person that loved action, and people, and energy… he took dance lessons in the Springfield area, and every time we were with him there was a new story. He was in the roots of Springfield, so he understood the importance of Springfield College.”

President Cooper says that Blake had a personal favorite Springfield College event: the annual Gymnastics Homeshow. 

“He loved the Homeshow; he came every year that I was here (since I’ve been here, and I’m sure that he came before that)… That was probably his favorite thing about Springfield College, the Homeshow.”

Blake liked the event so much so that the College planned a 100th birthday celebration for him during that year’s annual Homeshow.

It was at this 100th birthday celebration in 2014 that former Springfield College student Brianna Fattal (G’15), known then as Brianna Hill, met Blake. It began a unique friendship between the two that blossomed into a lifelong connection.

As a Communication/Sports Journalism major, Fattal was working with the College’s Marketing & Communications department to create videos of events on campus to be posted to the Springfield College website. She was tasked with covering the 100th birthday celebration, and all she initially knew was that it was a birthday celebration and that it was happening during the Homeshow. 

“Essentially, this man was turning 100 years old. They sent a limo to go pick up him and his wife, there was a red carpet, they had the cheerleaders and the dance squad lining the red carpet to welcome them in, they were escorted to sit in Blake Arena front and center, they watched the entire Homeshow with Mary-Beth Cooper, the president…” Fattal recounted.

“My job was just to kind of follow them, and get their experience… [the College] wanted to create a video to gift them for his birthday, so that’s what I did. It was so interesting because when I was following them— I usually didn’t do a lot of interacting with people at events— but he was very talkative and he just wanted to have conversation.”

Blake talked to Fattal for much of the evening, asking about her skin color and ethnicity. Fattal shared with him that she was Cape Verdean, a rare ethnicity, and Blake told her that he loved the Cape Verde islands and enjoyed personally sailing there to admire their beauty. 

Fattal says that she recalls them sharing nothing more than some polite conversation before the event was over, and she hadn’t thought anything serious about their conversation until President Mary-Beth Cooper called her a few days later.

“[President Cooper] mentioned that the Blakes had called, they’re extremely thankful for the video and the DVD that we put together for them, and he had asked for my information and to reach out,” said Fattal. Fattal gave her permission for President Cooper to send Blake her information.

“So he reached out, and they just invited me over for dinner, and unfortunately I was leaving that semester — I had an internship in California. So, we stayed in contact, we wrote each other back and forth a couple times, just kind of getting to know each other, and then I went back for graduation.

“They [again] invited me for dinner. And I thought, ‘OK, I have Senior Week, I have graduation, OK I can do it that night, after graduation?’ And so, yeah, a 100-year-old man picked me up from my last day at school, ever.”

Blake drove Fattal to him and his wife’s home in Somers, CT, for dinner that night. They allowed her to stay with him, and Fattal said that she thinks Pres and Helen Blake are “the most generous people of all time.” The three became very close as they got to know each other, and the Blakes came to know Fattal’s background and life story.

“They just wanted to, essentially, like love on me, and be a helping hand, when and where they could in my life,” said Fattal. “And honestly just support me, and be friendly.”

Fattal was not the only person the Blakes welcomed with open arms into their lives. She said that there were many other young women in college like her that Blake and his wife supported, be it financially, emotionally, or just wholeheartedly.

Fattal has maintained her relationship with the Blakes through the years. She has visited the Blakes in both of the homes they own in Florida and in Connecticut. Fattal said she has made it a point to visit them, whenever she is on the East Coast, in whichever home they’re at that moment.

Pres Blake would also call her almost once a month, and even more frequently at different times throughout the years. 

Fattal said that she oftentimes would allow him to go to voicemail just so she could have a recording of his voice, knowing that a friendship with a 106-year-old man leaves no room for missed memories. The last time he called her was Jan. 24, just two and a half weeks before his passing.

Pres Blake was a lover of many worldly things, but Thomas Jefferson and Rolls Royce cars were some of his true passions. For one of his birthdays, Blake had a replica built of the Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home and the building on the back of the nickel, Thomas Jefferson’s coin) with authentic materials delivered from Virginia, the site of the real Monticello. Blake later auctioned the building off for over $2 million and was able to donate it, along with almost 100 acres of his own land, to Hillsdale College in Michigan. The school now uses the Somers, CT property as the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom.

Blake’s Rolls Royce car collection was of his most prized possessions. Fattal recalled his love for the specific company and remembered past times she had rode with him in some of his collection’s pieces.

“He loved collecting Rolls Royce; I think he’s one of the people that has had the most Rolls Royce cars in the U.S., I believe,” she said. “He gave them to museums, and he had some, still… he shared with me that he appreciated the Rolls Royce so much because it’s a visual representation of hard work.

“His garage was lined with them, just nice cars. He would show me around the property– he had 112 acres in Somers, CT, something like four lakes… just an absurd amount of property. And he recycled the wood from the trees that they took down on the property and used it in his own Rolls Royce car. It was always small things like that, he was always extremely intentional with everything,” Fattal added.

Of everything S. Prestley Blake accomplished in his life, his age was one of his most incredible triumphs. President Mary-Beth Cooper joked, “He was a funny person, he loved coffee ice cream. He had ice cream every night for dessert, so he kind of believed in this product… If having coffee ice cream every night is the secret, I’m in!”

Whenever Fattal asked Blake what he attributed his age to, she said his answer was always the same: “‘You just keep going.’”

At every point in his life, Blake was generous to those who were deserving and loving to any who were close to him. As Fattal said, “Both Pres and Helen completely embody Springfield College and the humanics philosophy, because they are both 100 percent dedicated to serving others, when and however they can.”

S. Prestley Blake was a testament to Springfield College’s Mind, Body, and Spirit, and his love and energy will be greatly missed by the entire Springfield College community.

Photo: Springfield College Archives and Collections

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