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Friendly’s Ice Cream cofounder Curtis L. Blake dies at 102

Mr. Blake (left) and his brother, S. Prestley, Blake in 2001 at Friendly’s headquarters. Mr. Blake died May 24 in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 102.
Mr. Blake (left) and his brother, S. Prestley, Blake in 2001 at Friendly’s headquarters. Mr. Blake died May 24 in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 102.(Associated Press/File)

Curtis L. Blake and his brother S. Prestley Blake made a careful business decision when they opened an ice cream business in Springfield one hot summer evening in 1935 — a single storefront that grew into the Friendly’s ice cream and restaurant chain.

Their competitors charged a dime for two scoops. The Blakes only charged a nickel. “Our customers didn’t have any money and neither did we,” Curtis Blake told the Springfield Republican in 2017.

The line of customers stretched into the night and they made nearly $27.60 before closing — an impressive sum during the Great Depression.

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Curtis Blake, who with his older brother built their business into a highly successful company that has struggled in recent years under different ownership, was 102 when he died Friday in his home in Hobe Sound, Fla.

The Blakes called their ice cream business Friendly — the apostrophe “s” wasn’t added until the late 1980s, after they sold the company.

“We wanted to create a place where ice cream was our whole business,” Mr. Blake told the classic car site Hemmings Daily in 2014. “We’d do one thing and do it right.”

On that first night, Curtis was 18, Prestley was 20, and they had borrowed $547 from their parents to launch their business. As Prestley Blake told the Globe in 2007, they were “friendly guys by nature, and we wanted to be super nice to our customers.”

Still, the two were distinctly different as they guided their company to success. Mr. Blake had a gentler presence, while his older brother kept a stern, unwavering eye on the bottom line.

“My mom used to say if Pres owned the business alone, he wouldn’t have any employees,” Mr. Blake told the Globe in 2014. “If I owned the business alone, I would give it all away to the employees.”

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Curtis Blake “was a warm, outgoing, friendly man. He was the heart and soul of the business,” said his daughter, Susan, who recalled accompanying him to a plant as the company grew. “He introduced me to every employee — by their first and last names.”

When the brothers started out, they lived with their parents. “We didn’t have any employees. One of us was always working,” Mr. Blake told Hemmings.

“We went back and forth; when we closed our first shop at midnight, one of us would stay at the store and start making ice cream for the next day, and the other went home and slept,” he added. “Then the ice cream maker would come home and sleep around 7 a.m. Then that one would go back to help with the noon hour, because we put in hamburgers and coffee in the fall.”

Curtis (right) and S. Prestley stood in front of the first Friendly Ice Cream shop in an undated photo.
Curtis (right) and S. Prestley stood in front of the first Friendly Ice Cream shop in an undated photo.(Friendly's Ice Cream)

In the early years, Prestley was as the company’s treasurer, Curtis was the president – their titles decided “on the flip of a coin,” Prestley told the Globe in 2007, adding that their parents “were very anxious for us to have everything being as equal as possible.”

Prestley Blake served as CEO before the brothers sold Friendly ice cream to Hershey Foods Corp. in 1979 for about $164 million. By then, the business had grown to some 500 restaurants, according to the company’s online history.

The chain expanded to about 800 locations before it began to founder under a series of leadership changes. Earlier this year, the company said 174 restaurants are still open.

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Initially, Hershey sold the business to a management group. As the company’s debt load grew, Prestley Blake became concerned about the state of his former business. He began buying blocks of Friendly’s stocks nearly 20 years ago until he was the single-largest shareholder.

He was able to help force a sale to a private equity firm in 2007 — a move that brought in new leadership — but tensions during that era led the Blake brothers to stop speaking to one another.

In 2017, though, Curtis Blake told the Springfield Republican that he and his brother were talking again. They were back on good terms, he added, but “we had a period of eight or 10 years where we weren’t.”

Born in Springfield on April 15, 1917, Curtis L. Blake was one of four children. His father, Herbert P. Blake, worked for Standard Electric Time, a manufacturer of synchronized clock systems. His mother, Ethel Stewart Blake, was a homemaker and an inspiration for Curtis Blake’s keen interest in automobiles.

“My love of cars really started as a child because my mother, who was a very mechanically inclined person, loved cars,” he told Hemmings Daily.

His parents owned a Model T Ford, and one day his father said the car needed a valve job.

“My mother said, ‘I’ll get the car ready, and when you come home from the office at 5, you can grind the valves,’ ” Mr. Blake recalled. “So that day, she took the cylinder head off, and when he came home, they ground the valves and put the engine back together. By 8 or 9 p.m. the car was running again. That’s how mechanical she was.”

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Mr. Blake graduated from Technical High School in Springfield, and he later spent a year at Duke University.

It was his mother who told the brothers in 1935, “I don’t care if it’s the Depression, you boys aren’t staying home this summer,” said Mr. Blake’s daughter, Susan, who lives in California. “She was an amazing, strong-willed woman.”

Longevity runs in the family. Ethel Blake lived to 97. Prestley Blake is now 104.

Curtis (right) and S. Prestley Blake posed in 1966.
Curtis (right) and S. Prestley Blake posed in 1966. (Globe photo/file)

During World War II, the Blakes put up signs alerting customers that they would reopen after the war. Curtis Blake served in the Army Air Forces and was stationed for a time in England, assigned to a desk job.

He married Aileen MacFarland, and they had two children. Their marriage ended in divorce, and Aileen died in 1993. Their son, Channing, died in 1995.

Mr. Blake’s second wife was Patricia H. Blake, who had three children of her own. She died in July 2018.

In addition to his daughter, Susan, his brother, Prestley, and his three stepchildren, Mr. Blake leaves his sister, Betsy Melvin; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Services will be private.

In past years, Mr. Blake liked to sail along the Maine coast, along with being passionate about antique cars. He took his young family on a pair of extended road trips, displayed one of his cars at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, and later participated in cross-country jaunts with larger groups of antique vehicles.

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“I bought my first car when I was 11 years old,” he told Hemmings Daily. “It was a 1921 Ford Model T chassis, and it cost $2.50 — imagine, $2.50! I bought it from my scoutmaster, and I remember him writing out a bill of sale.”

Through the Curtis and Patricia Blake Foundation, he helped fund a number of causes, organizations, and buildings, including at Massachusetts General Hospital and at American International College in Springfield.

Mr. Curtis also stayed loyal to the business he started, dining there at least a couple of times a month. He liked to order a Big Beef sandwich; his favorite ice cream was Forbidden Chocolate. And he remained optimistic about the company, even during its rough financial times.

“There’s a big following,” he told the Globe in 2013. “Friendly’s has a big reservoir of good will.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.