“Pres” Blake was a long-time friend
of the college. Courtesy | Robert Norton.

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.”