Thursday, June 7, 2018

Tennis, Everyone...the Legendary Donald Van Blake (1921-2018)

Plainfield's last WW II "Buffalo Soldier," 2017.
I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Donald Van Blake, a living legend and one of Plainfield's greatest treasures. Donald (he insisted that I call him by his first name) was a multi-talented man--an educator, beloved coach, wonderful singer, and community advocate. Below is an update of a remembrance that I wrote on the occasion of Donald's 90th birthday party, a fun and swanky celebration at the Antique Castle.

 Back in 2011, I wrote and introduced a resolution honoring Donald Van Blake on the occasion of his 90th birthday and for his contributions to the world of tennis; the resolution a but also for his contributions to civic life in Plainfield. Many Plainfielders who went through the school system knew Donald as their former shop teacher at Hubbard Middle School, but many also know him as one of Plainfield's living legends. 

At his 90th birthday party with lovely Barbara Wallace.

I had met Donald very briefly during the formation of the New Democrats for Plainfield grassroots political club back in 2002, when I worked as a volunteer on the successful city council campaign of his great-nephew, Rayland Van Blake, but I got to know him better when I curated an oral history/photo exhibit called "At the March: Plainfield Remembers," while serving as the Educational Program Coordinator for the Historical Society of Plainfield in 2003. As I interviewed him, I learned a great deal about what Plainfield was like for young African Americans growing up in the 1920s and 30s, and about those who consistently advocated for change. 

Donald with Barbara Wallace & Patty Bender, Fall 2017
As Donald reflected on his growing up in Plainfield, he spoke very frankly and very emotionally about the pain he experienced due to racial segregation. I remember one part of the interview where he explained how it was back then...he became very quiet as he reflected on how he was not allowed to use the pool at the YMCA. I stopped the interview for a moment so that he could collect himself--even seven or more decades later, the hurt and rage he felt still brought tears to his eyes. He went on to state that the "old" Plainfield was what got him involved in community activism, and he worked with the local NAACP (along with other notable Plainfielders at the time) to bring buses down to the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Donald remained involved during the intervening years, working on school desegregation and other civil rights issues.

Earlier in the year of the interview (2003), as a member of New Democrats for Plainfield, Donald was elected as a Democratic Committeeman, serving for 15 years. A few years after that initial interview, Donald contacted me with an idea he had for a civic, sports, and educational complex to be built here in Plainfield. We discussed this idea at great length, and he remained committed to seeing it become a reality. When I decided to run for city council later on, I was honored to have Donald serve as one of my Campaign Chairs.

Teaching tennis. Photo:DVBTEF.
But...most folks knew Donald as the greatest advocate for tennis many of us had ever met..."Tennis, tennis,, everyone!" was his mantra. Donald founded (with the help of the USTA) the Plainfield Tennis Council, which organized community tennis programs through the city of Plainfield. 

Donald's exuberance and energy remained unflagging, and folks may remember him at last year's Memorial Day observance wearing his Buffalo Soldier uniform from World War II--it still fit beautifully. I feel like my life in Plainfield has been made infinitely richer through knowing Donald. 

My deepest condolences go out to Barbara Wallace, to Donald's children and family, and to Clare, Rayland, Gentry, and all the other family members. 

All best,


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