West Haven is a city of contradiction. Though it boasts more than 50,000 residents, it has somewhat of a small-town character. Granted, over the last few decades that smallness has diminished somewhat, but for many longtime Westies there are families and individuals that stand out. If you’re part of some community you’ll get to know some of those “characters” that give the city its vitality.
West Haven lost one of those characters last week. Thomas “Tinker” Blake lost his battle with Multiple Systems Atrophy, and passed into eternity with family members present. It was the end of a life that quietly showed greatness: greatness of character, greatness of family, and the greatness of goodness. If there is one attribute that can be used to describe Blake, it was it his innate goodness.
Interestingly, Tinker was one of the first people we met in West Haven when we moved here in 1967. He was our paper boy. Only about 11 or 12 at the time, he delivered the papers on time, and always had a smile on his face and a kind word. It didn’t last long, he family moved to Kelsey Avenue about six months later, but he was always the high bar used to measure future boys who delivered.
Over the years, I got to know Tinker as an athlete as he worked his way through the various leagues in West Haven, though he was a few years behind me. As a player for Tom Hunt’s West Haven Blue Devils football team, and in the many decades to follow, Tinker was good naturedly tenacious. He knew what he wanted and would outwork anyone in order to get it.
He wasn’t the best athlete at West Haven., but there was no person in any sport who worked harder. When his sports career was over and he went onto college and professional life, that hard-working, stick-to-it attitude was what one saw in Tinker.
There was one steady element in the life story that is Tinker Blake: family.
The Blake family had a name in the city. The Blake Building, the former Board of Education domicile, was named after John Blake, a one-time state rep and tireless city promoter. But Tinker’s branch of the Blake family made its own name. Lucille and Tom Blake raised their kids to have respect for individuals, both those they knew and those they just met, respect for community and respect for country.
Tinker’s father was taken too soon, and the Blake family had to endure the pain that comes with losing a parent and husband. But the lessons learned kept the family together, and kept it strong.
Lucille, who had worked for the Board of Education for many years, took on the task of working for Bud Conlan at the Edward L. Bennett Rink. No easy task that. Conlan could be soft and endearing one minute and irascible the next. She was the rink secretary and she kept both the operation her boss on an even keel.
For many years I was the voice of the many hockey games at Bennett, announcing as many as 70 games a year. I got to be a regular at the rink, and called Lucille, Conlan and the late WHHS coach Art Crouse my friends.
During those years I got to see the young Tinker Blake become the profession family man Tinker Blake. Tinker met Maureen Smullen in high school. Theirs was a relationship many hope to have but few realize. High school sweethearts, they married and were together for more than 37years. It was the merger of two great names in West Haven. The Smullens were known by everyone and had made a name as a family that gets involved. When Tinker was in the throes of his last days, Maureen never left his side.
Tinker and Maureen instilled in their three children, Kevin, Erin, and Brittany the same lessons. All are giving back to the community, were fine students and athletes, and are now in the professional ranks, making their names.
Through his years at SNET and then his stint as Executive Assistant to Mayor John Picard he was professional, courteous and always ready with a wry comment or story.
For the community, Blake’s accomplishments are unparalleled. The litany of awards and commendations are too long to list here. But, they are the result of a life lived well and for the betterment of others and his community.
In his adult years he became quite the master of ceremonies, keeping dinner programs and awards programs moving. He was the face of many organizations, civic, athletic and fraternal.
But there was something Tinker exhibited among all other traits. He was the voice of sanity among a cacophony of hysteria. When people around him began to get too emotional, or let their passions run wild, Tinker was the calming influence. He had a way of bringing down the volume and making people understand that while they might not agree on process, they all agreed on goals.
For many years, he and his longtime buddy Steve Dargan worked in tandem in the press box at Ken Strong Stadium with Dargan doing the announcing and Blake the spotting. The banter between those two was something.
When he was first stricken with his disease five years ago, I saw him in his office at City Hall. He was bound and determined to persevere and work through the disease – a disease it took more than a year to diagnose.
The call that let me know about Tinker’s passing was like a punch in the gut. Though I knew about his decline, there is always the faintest hope things will turn around. He was taken from us too young.
To his mother, Lucille, and his wife, Maureen, we share in your grief, but cannot know the pain you suffer now. To his children, know that your father was great in all the little things that make life worth living. To his friends, know he was a person that made our lives a little better. To the community, know that Tinker Blake is a person we all should aspire to as an example of honesty, integrity and giving back to the community that nurtured us.
Requiescat in pace.