Written by Crystal Ward Kent
Jude Blake of Portsmouth New Hampshire may be slight in stature, but she is impressive in her ability to make a difference. Since moving back to the state in 2010, she has made it her personal mission to assist worthy nonprofits that make a difference in building community, creating engaged citizens and providing the kind of critical education that opens doors to better lives. Among those she has helped are her beloved University of New Hampshire (UNH), The Music Hall, Crossroads House, The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire and Families First.
Blake is originally from Philadelphia, but has long felt that New Hampshire was her true home. “My family moved around a great deal when I was growing up,” she relates. “My junior year of high school, we were going to move again, but I was accepted to early admission at UNH and went there. When I arrived in Durham, I immediately felt at home. I loved UNH; I thrived there, and when I graduated, I knew that one day I would be back to stay.”
Blake went on to graduate school at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, then launched into a marketing career with General Mills, one of the country’s largest food manufacturers. She flourished professionally, but the seeds had already been planted that hinted at a different life, one committed to giving back. “My father grew up poor; he had no real chance at education,” she explains. “He served in World War II and then went to college thanks to scholarships and the GI Bill. Education provided opportunities for a better life and he never forgot that—he never forgot that someone else’s gifts changed his life. He became successful and was also very philanthropic. He was also my best friend and mentor and a wonderful role model.”
Blake’s interest in making a difference was encouraged at General Mills, a company that was also invested in helping local communities. “As a young executive, I had a mentor who showed me that when companies get involved, they can be a force for positive change. I became involved with a program which was supported by General Mills that taught business skills to students who came from rural communities in Minnesota. I saw firsthand how such a simple effort transformed their opportunities. I knew then, that whatever my career path, I wanted to make a difference.”
UNH’s Biggest Fan
Blake’s career kept her on the move for several years, as she lived in Minnesota, Chicago, Zurich, Switzerland and California, where she became involved in the wine business. However, she frequently journeyed back to New Hampshire and a visit to UNH was always on the schedule. Early on, she had started donating to UNH, which led to conversations with some key University representatives. Since she cared so much, why not get involved? She agreed, and so began a long history of active involvement with her alma mater.
Blake still serves on the UNH Alumni Association Board of Directors, which she joined back in 2006. She also chairs the Peter T. Paul College Advisory Board and her generous bequest to this new business and entrepreneurship school supports student scholarship and programming. Blake is also involved in a hands-on way, occasionally teaching classes on the wine business. She has served as a USNH trustee, where she was an officer and played a leadership role, and she was on the board of directors for the UNH Foundation. While she supports the entire University and its mission, she is particularly passionate about the Paul College, Shoals Marine Lab and Northeast Passage. Now that she lives locally, she helps organize fundraisers, garner support and in short, does all she can to shine a light on these programs.
Northeast Passage, for example, provides high-tech adaptive sports equipment to youth and veterans. “The equipment is developed by UNH engineering students and literally transforms lives,” enthuses Blake. “People can now hike, do sled-hockey, ski and much more thanks to these innovations. I’ve helped to plan an annual event at the Wentworth-by-the-Sea for several years now. We tell people to come in casual clothes so they can experience the equipment; they also see a demonstration, and meet our inspirational speakers. In five years, we’ve gone from raising $90,000 annually at the event to more than $160,000. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved with.”
Blake enjoys supporting local causes because she knows that gifts given here can make a bigger difference. “I don’t do a lot of national philanthropy because by giving locally, I can see the impact of my donations,” she says. “I know I can be a force for positive change here.” Blake chooses her charities carefully, looking for those that are fiscally responsible and stable, have sound long-term plans, and are capable of making a real difference. And her support is not just financial; early on, she joined the Crossroads House board, serving for eight years. “Crossroads House helps individuals and families get back on their feet. If you are homeless and hungry, it’s hard to get to a better life without a helping hand. Crossroads House helps people get back on track and become contributors to the community.”
Families First is another Blake cause, because they help low-income families with healthcare and offer discounts for the uninsured. Blake wants to be sure that as many children as possible get a good start in life. “I got involved with Families First and No Kid Hungry because kids need to be well-nourished and they need to be educated. If they do not get that good start, then their road is that much harder,” she explains. “An educated child becomes a good citizen later on. Not everyone needs to go to college, but everyone needs opportunities, and should have the right to choose their path, whether that is community college, technical school, or a university.” Blake supported The Children’s Museum in its move to Dover because she believes they are another important resource for children. “They offer an educational experience that is fun and inspires creativity and learning,” she says. “They are an important component in creating a vibrant community.”
Creating a vibrant community and being a good citizen are recurring themes with Blake, which is one reason why she has given generously to The Music Hall in Portsmouth and continues to serve on two committees there. “The Music Hall has become the heart of Portsmouth,” she states. “They offer top entertainment which draws people not only to the downtown but also to Portsmouth and the Seacoast in general; they offer educational programming that enriches the community and opens the world of the arts to kids; they bring in speakers and authors, and support local artists. Their impact is multi-faceted and far-reaching.”
While each charity she chooses has special meaning to Blake, UNH is closest to her heart. “UNH gave me my life and helped me become who I am today,” she says. “Because I flourished there, I was able to get into Wharton, and then build a successful career. It was the start of everything. I also see UNH as important not only for nurturing the futures of so many young people, but also as being an important economic engine for the state. It supports the economy in many different ways, and its research and programs are creating new industries and jobs for the future.”
One of the things that Blake is most passionate about in her support of the University is mentoring students. When she talks about them, one really sees the warmth and caring that are at the heart of this philanthropist. “I have many ‘adopted’ kiddos!” she laughs. “I mentor about 10 students at a time, choosing two or three new ones each year. However, even after they graduate, we stay in touch. Many evenings will find me hosting kiddos past and present for dinner—I love to cook and we have a great time fixing meals together and catching up. Some of my kiddos live far away now, but we are frequently on the phone. I’ve been to weddings, family get-togethers. I cherish the relationships we’ve built and they know I’m there for them any time! I didn’t have kids of my own, so these are my kids! I love working with young people—I’m a people person by nature—it’s exciting to help people realize their potential and find their path. It keeps me energized and feeling positive about the future.”
Blake hopes that others, including young people, will realize the importance of philanthropy, no matter the size of their gifts. “When we help others, we are being good citizens—and we are helping create good citizens for the future. Giving builds communities. Supporting the arts or education, helping families–these things keep our communities and our state vibrant and moving forward. Giving benefits not just the recipient, but everyone. And it feels really good!”