A “Lucky Guy” Who Gave Back
Pres Blake '34 was one of NMH’s staunchest supporters.
S. Prestley “Pres” Blake ’34 made his first gift to NMH in 1939, at the age of 24. The amount: $2. That was the beginning of a long tradition of generosity and determination that has helped to transform NMH’s campus and support generations of students and faculty.
Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s Ice Cream and NMH’s oldest alumnus, died on Feb. 11, 2021, at the age of 106. He personified the entrepreneurial, hard-working spirit of NMH, and built his legacy as a benefactor of NMH and other institutions not only on strong business leadership but also on supporting people, whether they were employees at Friendly’s or students at his alma mater. “I want to help others who are looking for tools to do well in life,” he wrote in his 2011 autobiography, A Friendly Life.
On NMH’s campus, Blake’s presence is reflected most visibly in Blake Hall, home to the student center and humanities classrooms, and the school’s snackbar, affectionately named the “Pres Box.” Blake and his wife Helen also funded the construction of Blake House, a faculty home. In 1980, he established the Thomas Donovan Prize to honor his former English teacher, who was legendary for being “effectively strict” and “greatly loved” at the same time, Blake once said.
Blake attended the Mount Hermon School for Boys during the Great Depression, following in the footsteps of his father, Herbert Blake, Class of 1904. Pres Blake liked to call himself a Mount Hermon “Speer boy,” referring to 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. Blake and his fellow Speer boys established the Elliott Speer Memorial Fund, which has enabled NMH’s heads of school to support special community activities or respond to circumstances of unexpected need. Blake and Helen also established the Herbert Blake faculty fellowship in memory of Blake’s father, which recognizes NMH teachers who have made significant contributions to students beyond the academic arena; and the Helen and Prestley Blake ’34 Endowed Scholarship Fund to provide financial aid for students.
Head of School Brian Hargrove met Blake soon after arriving at NMH. “I had the same reaction to him that I imagine so many others had,” Hargrove said. “He was a man of profound conviction.” Hargrove honored Blake at a ceremony in 2019 — during Blake’s 85th NMH reunion — with the Head’s Award, which recognizes alumni whose philanthropy has a significant impact on the lives of students, faculty, and staff. The crowd, which included his son, Benson Blake ’66, celebrated with a standing ovation.
Blake’s success story began nearly eight decades earlier, when he and his younger brother Curtis borrowed $547 from their parents and founded the Friendly Ice Cream Company in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1935. Their competitors’ ice cream cost a dime, so the Blake brothers sold their cones for a nickel and gained a loyal following. As CEO, Blake kept his eye on the company’s bottom line. By 1979, the Friendly Ice Cream chain had grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise and 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, when the company was faltering due to mismanagement, Blake came out of retirement to scoop up enough of Friendly’s plummeting stock to revive the business.
“Pres was a force for good at NMH and beyond — a model for us all to aspire to.”
That sense of responsibility was always part of Blake’s life. As a student at Mount Hermon, he worked as a “houseboy” in Overtoun Hall and as a waiter in the school kitchen. NMH’s work program was one reason he supported the school with such loyalty. His own experiences convinced him that working outside the classroom was a crucial part of getting a good education. “Kids need to understand that they’ll have duties in life,” Blake liked to say.
His own self-assigned duty included giving back to institutions in his communities. Besides NMH, the Blake name adorns buildings at Bay Path College, Springfield College, Wilbraham and Monson Academy, and Western New England School of Law. In Stuart, Florida, where Blake lived in the winter, he supported the Blake Library. “Pres was a champion and a force for good at NMH and beyond,” Hargrove said. “He was a model for us all to aspire to.”
But in A Friendly Life, Blake wrote that he was simply “a lucky guy” who “started small, worked hard, and succeeded beyond [his] wildest dreams.” He wrote, “My advice for anybody starting out in life is simple: Get to work!”