Prestley Blake — founder of Friendly’s restaurant chain and friend of Hillsdale College — died in a Florida hospital last week at the age of 106. Blake, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, donated a large part of his estate in Somers, Connecticut, to the college.
The property, which includes a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, was established by the college as The Blake Center for Faith and Freedom, a religious institution.
Hillsdale College General Counsel Robert Norton, who represented the college in zoning disputes for the property and knew Blake personally, said Blake was the example of a life well lived.
“Pres Blake meant a lot to me. I got to know him a few years ago when we were first contacted about the possible gift of his house and neighboring houses and buildings to the college,” Norton said. “He was, I think, 104 years old at that time but he was very energetic, very intelligent, and he had a great love of beauty and beautiful things. He had made his property into a beautiful park-like setting.”
Blake was a man with a love for adventure, opening an ice cream store with his brother that would become a large franchise, circumnavigating the world in a yacht twice, owning dozens of Rolls Royces, and driving ATVs at the age of 104, according to Norton.
Blake also cared deeply for his wife, who supported and partnered with him in various philanthropic projects.
“I was struck by the great relationship he had with his wife, Helen. They clearly loved and respected each other. It was the kind of relationship you felt good about being in its presence,” Norton said. “Helen’s a wonderful lady in her own right, and she was instrumental in his making the decision towards his gift. He certainly did it with her full cooperation and blessing.”
According to Masslive, Helen Blake’s goal is to continue his ongoing projects, including work at the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom.
“My mission has been to keep him happy and alive,” she said. “From now on, my mission is going to be to finish the things that we started together.”
Norton said that while events at the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom have been hampered due to COVID-19, the college fully intends to make use of it as soon as restrictions are loosened.
“Blake was still pressing forward and had big plans for the property being used. We intend fully to use the property as a religious institution as the clearance that we received,” Norton said. “We plan on holding the types of events that he wanted us to hold there; there’s a focus on faith and freedom. We really look forward to the property’s use — it’s a beautiful piece of property and we’re going to cherish it and take care of it.”