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NMH Loses One of its Staunchest Supporters

Feb. 12, 2021 — S. Prestley “Pres” Blake ’34, co-founder of Friendly’s Ice Cream and NMH’s oldest alumnus, died on Feb. 11 at the age of 106. Pres personified the entrepreneurial, hard-working spirit of the school and built his legacy not only on strong business leadership but also on sharing generously with others. The impact of Pres’s support of NMH has been felt by the entire community for decades, and his generosity will continue to transform the lives of NMH students for generations to come. 

Proud that his first gift to the school — in honor of his five-year reunion — was $2, Pres became a major NMH benefactor. His and his wife Helen’s generosity is reflected across campus, most visibly in Blake Hall, home to NMH’s student center, and the school’s snackbar, affectionately named the “Pres Box.” In addition to Blake Hall, Pres and Helen built Blake House, a faculty home. 

“I had the good fortune of meeting Pres in my earliest days at NMH,” said Head of School Brian Hargrove. “I imagine that I had the same reaction to him that so many others have had: He was a man of profound conviction.”  

Pres liked to call himself NMH’s last living “Speer boy.” The term refers to Mount Hermon alumni from the classes of 1933–36 who believed then-headmaster Elliott Speer was destined to become one of the great educators of his time. To celebrate and perpetuate Speer’s legacy, Pres and his fellow Speer boys established the Elliott Speer Memorial Fund to keep the spirit of Elliott Speer alive within the school community. The fund allows the head of school to support special community activities or circumstances of unexpected need.

Pres was deeply committed to education and helping people. In 1980, he established the Thomas Donovan Prize for Excellence in Ninth Grade English to honor his former teacher, “one of the most effectively strict teachers [Mount Hermon] ever had and he was greatly loved at the same time,” Pres once said. He and Helen also established the Herbert Blake Chair faculty fellowship in memory of Pres’s father, recognizing teachers who have made significant contributions to NMH students beyond the academic arena; and the Helen and Prestley Blake ’34 Endowed Scholarship Fund to provide financial aid for deserving students. “I want to help other people who are looking for tools to do well in life,” Pres told NMH Magazine in 2016. 

Back in 1978, he was honored with the NMH Distinguished Service Award for a decade of leadership on his NMH Reunion Committee. In 2019, he returned to campus for his 85th reunion — the only NMH alumnus to reach that milestone — and was honored with the Head’s Award, which recognizes alumni whose philanthropy has a significant impact on the lives of students, faculty, and staff. The crowd of alumni, including his son, Benson Blake ’66, celebrated him with a standing ovation. 

NMH’s work program was one reason Pres supported the school with such loyalty. He had worked as a “houseboy” in Overtoun Hall and as a waiter in the school kitchen. Those experiences convinced him that working outside the classroom is a crucial part of a great education. “Kids need to understand that they’ll have duties in life,” he said.

Pres’s own work story began during the Great Depression, when he and his younger brother Curtis borrowed $547 from their parents and founded the Friendly Ice Cream Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their competitors’ ice cream cost a dime that year, 1935. The Blake brothers sold their ice cream for a nickel and gained a loyal following, eventually building the business into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. While his brother and business partner, Curtis, excelled at employee and customer relations, CEO Pres kept his eye firmly on the company’s bottom line. By 1979, the Friendly Ice Cream chain was operating more than 600 restaurants in 18 states. That year, Hershey Foods acquired the company, shortened the name to Friendly’s, and the Blake brothers retired. More than two decades later, Pres came out of retirement to scoop up enough of Friendly’s plummeting stock to revive the company that he and Curtis built.

In his autobiography, A Friendly Life, published in 2011, Pres wrote about the importance of giving back to his various communities. Today, the Blake name adorns buildings at Northfield Mount Hermon, Bay Path College, Springfield College, Wilbraham and Monson Academy, and Western New England College School of Law. In Stuart, Florida, his winter home, he supported Blake Library.

“Pres loved Northfield Mount Hermon,” said Hargrove. “He spoke lovingly of the teachers and coaches who impacted him, and he honored them with his words and his deeds. He was a champion and a force for good at NMH and beyond — a model for us all to aspire to.”

 

Photo by Paul Schnaittacher