To say Lillard Blake, a retired eighth-grade science teacher who taught thousands of students over a four-decade career had a long-lasting impact on my life would be an understatement.
In fact, besides my dad, he probably impacted me the most. He undoubtedly affected many other learners, as well, during his career, nearly all of it at Comstock Junior High School in Santa Rosa.
Mr. Blake grew up on his family’s farm in the center of Kansas, where they raised wheat and dairy cows. He acquired his unusual first name from a beloved farmhand.
He attended Sterling College in Kansas and majored in chemistry and history. Sterling has a population of about 2,300 people and could easily be out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He attended this liberal arts school because it was the closest college to his family’s farm.
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With the start of winter, the workload diminished as temperatures decreased, allowing him to concentrate on his schoolwork. In January, the coldest month in Sterling, the average low temperature is 18 degrees with a daily mean of 29, but it quickly warms by April with an average high of 67.
Last month, I got to see him again for the first time in 45 years due to a chance conversation with Steve Weiss of Los Osos. Turns out, Weiss’ wife, Sherri, is related and very close to Mr. Blake and his wife, Kay. They were in Los Osos visiting the Weisses at their home and invited me over.
The last time I remember Mr. Blake was in December of 1972 in his recently constructed science classroom. I could tell you where I sat and remembered the feel of the dark-gray counter tops, stainless steel sinks, lab stools and the smell of the Bunsen burners and glassware.
December 1972 was colder than average, and many of the mud puddles that surrounded the school would freeze during the overnight hours, allowing us to partially ice skate across these shallow small bodies of water. That month, KFRC 610 AM, the station all the kids listen too, continuously played Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” But I mostly remembered, Mr. Blake’s laugh and smile; he was my favorite teacher.
His lesson plans were thought provoking. One was titled “How sweet it is,” which involved combining the white powdery crystals of citric acid and sugar to make lemonade or combining sugar and sulfuric acid to create “black snakes” through reactive chemistry.
His fellow science teacher, Hank Paterson, went to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and taught with Mr. Blake for all those years at Comstock Junior High School. He would sponsor a lunchtime seminar in his classroom every week. In those days, fellow “geek,” “nerd” and “freak” students would gather and ask questions and discuss current events as they related to science. At that time, NASA’s Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission, was heading back from the moon. I remember asking about the vacuum of space and what would happen if their spacesuits sprung a leak or what’s faster than the speed of light.
A thought-provoking question indeed!
They say you can never go back, but last month, during our conversation with Mr. Blake, his broad smile and stories transported me back to 1972. I have a great deal of respect for teachers. They drain nearly all their emotional energy into their classrooms and do awe-inspiring amounts of after-hours work at home or coffee shops grading papers or tests, which often lead to exhaustion at the end of the day. If you’re a teacher, and you think you’re not making a difference; think again, you are.