Remembering George Blake
Colleagues and friends dedicate outdoor
space to the professor “with an endless appetite
for other human beings.”
When Ed Geist, UB’s director of English, applied for a teaching job at UB 27 years ago, he was prepared to talk about his qualifications. Instead, George Blake asked him, “What kind of car do you drive?”
The question was vintage Blake, who was then a professor in the English Department. “He had an endless appetite for other human beings,” Geist said. “By the end of the interview I realized he knew all sorts of things about me I didn’t want anyone to know. I felt I had known him all my life.” Blake died of lung cancer in 2001. In May, family members and former colleagues dedicated a garden seating area in his memory. Ringed by trees and plants, the outdoor space next to Charles Dana Hall is as welcoming as Blake was himself.
“He was always on the brink: you didn’t know if he was going to say something profound or hilarious,” said Susan Birge, UB’s former director of counseling and former associate dean of students. “He left an indelible mark on those who knew him.”
Blake, who held a bachelor’s from Harvard and a PhD from New York University, came to UB in 1971 and taught British and world literature, composition, and humanities classes. Brimming with intelligence, curiosity, and wit, he was brilliant and outrageous.
“I turned to him [one day] and said, ‘Isn’t it great talking about literature so much? I can’t believe they’re paying us,’” recalled professor emeritus of English Wilson Kimnach, who frequently carpooled with Blake when one of their cars broke down. “He said, ‘Well, that’s debatable.’”
Blake left UB in 1971 to work with the General Assembly’s Educational Committee, but returned to the University after a year. He went on to create and direct the Basic Studies program, which has helped hundreds of students by providing them with remedial and other academic support.
“He had a way of treating students with such respect; they gravitated toward him,” said Provost Hans van der Giessen. “He was more of a role model to our students than anyone ever had been. He gave them hope.”
In 1980, the University awarded Blake a Presidential Fellowship, under a program created by late UB President Leland Miles and the Faculty Council. Blake directed assignments from Miles, participated in Cabinet meetings, and worked on University and state relations. “Everyone wanted him on their committee,” said Barbara Maryak, former dean of admissions.
When Blake was diagnosed with lung cancer, word swept through campus, and a meeting was called. “No one knew what to do but everyone felt they had to do something,” said van der Giessen. “The decision was made to purchase some gifts for him, but no one knew what to buy. Eventually it was decided that we would buy one of original copies of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland.”
Colleagues raised funds for Blake’s memorial garden because “the imperative to do something is still with us,” said van der Giessen. The admiration was mutual, assured Virginia Blake. “George loved this place so much,” she said. “I’m so glad this place loved him back.”