A Tribute to Dr. Herman Blake by Frank O. Smith
In the spring of 1970, John Rickford (Stevenson ’71) and I went to Daufuskie Island, SC, through the Cowell Extramural Program. The Extramural Program was Herman’s brainchild, designed to provide a rich educational experience for students, and as a mechanism for providing service to low-income communities around the country. Daufuskie was then an isolated island community of a hundred people, predominantly of descendents of African American slaves who had worked the cotton plantations on Daufuskie and other nearby Sea Islands.In the spring of 1970, John Rickford (Stevenson ’71) and I went to Daufuskie Island, SC, through the Cowell Extramural Program.
Our only charter for the academic quarter was to provide community service. John and I worked in the two-room elementary school; hoed gardens; patched roofs and mended fences; hauled groceries and supplies from the island boat to people’s homes; started a youth program; and served as advocates for island people in their dealings with local, state, and federal agencies. We were two of seven UCSC students that quarter who lived with local families all across Beaufort County.
On one visit Herman made, we were guests at his uncle’s church on John’s Island, outside Charleston. It was memorable for many reasons, chief among them that his uncle invited Herman to come to the pulpit to preach. I had taken classes from Herman on campus, and knew him to be a passionate lecturer, but his sermon was unlike anything I had witnessed in the classroom. The man could preach. He was capable of commanding riveted attention from the entire congregation, and of reaching the most hardened soul.
When all of us students gathered with him later in the day, I remember one thing that Herman said that stands clear in my mind to this day. He told us that certainly, one of the goals of the Cowell Extramural Program was to provide service to communities. But just as important, it was to provide students an experience of a lifetime, especially students who came from more privileged backgrounds. He said that his hope was that those of us who participated in the program would never – for the rest of our lives – be able to look dispassionately on people who are less privileged and seemingly different from us.
In the fall of 1970, John Rickford and I hosted a college night program at Cowell College, a program that featured the Extramural Program and our time on Daufuskie. It was a multi-media presentation that mixed an extensive slide show of the island and its people with tape recordings John had made of interviews and church services, of recitations, singing, skits, and speeches from islanders at a community event that we organized while on the island.
On college night, Herman was in the audience in the Cowell dining hall. He had invited to join him a professional colleague and his wife from Southern California who were in Santa Cruz for a visit. Unbeknownst to me, his friend had questioned Herman as to whether it was appropriate to send white students into low income, ethnic communities and then have them come back and speak about those communities. Herman simply told him that he should come to college night to see the program.
At the conclusion of the program, Herman made a point of finding me in order to introduce me to his friends. We ended up sitting at a table as the dining hall emptied of attendees, with his friend asking me many questions about the Extramural Program and my time on Daufuskie. It grew late and the college staff was wanting to finish cleaning the hall. Herman’s friend invited me to join him and his wife at their hotel for a drink so we could continue talking.
Several days later when I ran into Herman on campus, he told me the backstory of his friend questioning his judgment regarding the Cowell Extramural Program. Herman also wanted to tell me that his friend, before leaving town, apologized, saying he was immensely impressed with the value of the program to communities and to students of all ethnic backgrounds.
Though I am pivot in this story, it’s not about me. It’s about Herman. It’s about his passionate commitment to inclusion in the broadest sense of the term. It’s about his lifelong focus on serving communities, and on changing people’s perceptions about others who are outwardly different – changing perceptions on a large scale, but also changing attitudes one person at a time. And it’s about his love for the best of what education can provide.
Herman touched my life in very profound ways. But more importantly, he changed my life. Looking back, I can trace the major trajectory of my life from the moment in time I came to know Herman. One small measure of his influence came in my returning to teach in the Daufuskie Island School after I graduated from UCSC.
Thank you Herman. My education – in the truest sense of the word – and my life would have been woefully different if I hadn’t met you.
Frank O Smith (Cowell 1972)