A1 Feature from Richmond Times-Dispatch • By: Joey Ukrop • Photography: Alexa Welch Edlund
Bill Blake is 60 percent historian and 40 percent pastor.
From his years chasing girls at Sunday school to lecturing in packed auditoriums, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor emeritus has always kept a Bible close – and his history books closer.
History and religion are a natural combination for Blake. More than six decades after starting his education, the lively 84-year-old continues to teach and preach throughout the Richmond area. He recently completed an eight-week lecture series about Western civilization for senior citizens through the Shepherd’s Center of Richmond.
“People who hear me preach think I’m teaching, and people who hear me teach think I’m preaching,” he said. “My style is about the same in both venues.”
Regardless of the audience, Blake speaks with confidence. His thoughts are often paired with swooping gestures, and each new thought triggers a shift of his smoky eyebrows.
The son of a draftsman, Blake was raised in a blue-collar Richmond family. Other than the playground and the school, he and his friends spent most of their time in church.
He constantly sampled congregations, nestling into the pews at Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches across town. Blake said rather than being guided by deep theological attachments, he mainly followed his friends or teenage love interests. He wound up at Fairmount Christian Church on Fairmount Avenue.
“I was tremendously fortunate that both my parents were church people, I had a good preacher as a young person, a good Sunday school teacher and a lot of good friends,” he said.
At 18, Blake enrolled at the University of Cincinnati with aspirations of becoming a minister. While in Ohio, he earned a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity degrees. But after his coursework was complete, he realized it wasn’t enough.
“I decided that I really couldn’t do Bible and theology without studying history,” Blake said.
He then shifted his focus to early European history -- including the medieval, resonance and reformation periods. In 1958, Blake landed his first full-time teaching job and soon tacked on two more degrees -- a Master of Theology and a Ph.D.
With a resume rivaling the length of the Old Testament, Blake was hired as a history professor at VCU in 1965. He retired from full-time teaching there in 1992.
On Thursday, as Blake worked his way to the front of the classroom in the First Presbyterian Church on Cary Street Road, the room went silent. Twenty senior citizens in folding chairs directed their attention to his slender frame and wide stance.
The pulpit was pushed against the back wall, and the TV monitor was turned off. There wasn’t a script or outline in sight. His hands rested inside the pockets of his slacks like a pair of caged birds, anxious to escape as soon as the lecture began.
Blake has spent 56 years developing his unmistakable teaching style – a careful balance of classroom and chapel.
But the appeal isn’t entirely content driven. Like any strong speaker, much of the allure lies in the delivery.
Whenever Blake speaks, it’s all from memory. This has been his signature since the late 1970s.
“Since I don’t take manuscripts into class or into the pulpit, I have to work hard getting the things carefully thought out in my mind,” he said.
His approach to maintaining a nimble mind is simple – memorize something new every day.
John Clark, a student in Blake’s Shephard’s Center classes since the early 2000s, quickly noted his sharpness. “He’s not always fumbling through the Bible or any other work to find the answer,” Clark said.
Establishing rapport is a mainstay of Blake’s public speaking. Rather than remembering the minute details, he focuses on the larger ideas to maintain relevance.
“I think that both historians and preachers need to pay great attention to the real contact between them and the students,” Blake said.
In the early 1970s, college campuses were heating up across the nation. Blake said the civil rights movements and Vietnam War made this an electric and exciting time to teach. Always the innovator, Blake helped his students make connections between a revolutionary pope of the 11th century and the U.S. military involvement in overseas conflicts.
After discovering the pope’s dying words supported justice and denounced evil, one of Blake’s students jumped out of his seat and blurted, “Man, that’s relevant stuff.”
Complementing his ability to craft gripping lectures and sermons, Blake has developed a knack for poetry and song. From a jingle about Martin Luther to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” to a VCU fight song featuring cell phones ringing, his work appeals to multiple generations.
Ross Dorneman, the board chairman at the Bethany Christian Church on Forest Hill Avenue, helped hire Blake for a pastoral position in 2004. During Blake’s 13-month stint, Dorneman was able to witness his creativity firsthand.
“When our secretary retired after 49 years, he wrote …a poem and performed it at her retirement party,” Dorneman said.
Church member Barbara Ozlin said Blake was a “hugging minister” who was ready to share encouraging words whenever possible
To the congregation at Bethany Christian, Blake was more than just a preacher – he was a friend.
After retiring from full-time teaching at VCU in 1992, Blake remained active as a professor emeritus. From 1977 to 2008, he taught a course about the history of Christianity 39 times.
Additionally, he and his wife established the William E. and Miriam S. Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity. Since 1994, this endowed fund brings religious scholars to speak at VCU annually.
Even with the series in full swing, the Blakes dreamed of establishing an endowed chair at VCU. In the spring of 2006, a $1 million anonymous donation from a former student brought the idea to life, resulting in the formation of the William E. and Miriam S. Blake Chair in the History of Christianity.
The objective of Blake’s lectures isn’t to gain accolades – it’s to broaden the audiences’ understanding of Christianity by making it relatable.
“It’s so much fun to connect with people and to see the expressions on their faces and their eyes light up, it’s just a joy,” Blake said.