|Head of School Christopher Burner '80, right, unveiled the portrait of retiring faculty member Lee Blankenship at the spring Academic Awards ceremony.|
Lee Blankenship arrived on the Western Reserve Academy campus in the fall of 1971, in his own words, “by accident.”
For four decades of WRA students, that may have been the best accident in school history.
Blankie, as he is affectionately known, will retire at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. During his time on Brick Row he has served in so many roles that it is hard to think of something he hasn’t done at school. Over the years he has taught engineering, woodworking and architectural design; coached wrestling, football, baseball, softball and golf; worked as athletic director; was chairman of the Fine & Performing Arts Department during the construction of the Knight Fine Arts Center; and served on several committees, including Athletic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Buildings and Grounds. He is also a mentor to the fledgling robotics program.
And none of it would have happened were it not for a shift in strategy among the auto manufacturing industry in Detroit.
“When I graduated from Kent State with a degree in industrial design, Detroit had just decided to switch to interchangeable body panels, fitted onto a common frame, to create their array of different model cars rather than designing them from the group up,” Blankenship said. “At that time the auto industry was the biggest employer of industrial designers and they were in the process of releasing designers with 30 years of experience. So they weren’t really hiring college kids.
“At the same time, there was a shortage of industrial arts educators and states were desperate for teachers. I was a shop rat in high school – I was always building in the summertime, working with contractors – so it was kind of the next thing I was best at.”
Blankenship eventually took a job at Berkshire High School in Burton in the fall of 1970. His wife, Karen, was an elementary teacher at a school in Stow and learned that WRA was looking for an industrial arts teacher. Blankenship interviewed for the position and was hired by then-Headmaster Peter Briggs.
“It was closer to where my wife was teaching at the time and, obviously, it turned out to be a great place to raise kids,” Blankenship said. “Hudson was a safe, nice place to live, the schools were good, and Reserve students were rewarding to work with; we’ve never had a desire to go anywhere else.”
While many things have changed in the classroom over the years, mainly the introduction of technology to the design process in 1999, WRA’s program in many ways still resembles the one Blankie took over in 1971.
“The woodworking shop is still a traditional style, hands-on cabinet-making experience, which at many schools has gone by the wayside because of budget cuts,” Blankenship said. “That is one of the special things about Reserve.
“With engineering, we went from drawing with a T-square, triangle and different grades of pencils, spending considerable time making the right quality of line so it could be read in a drawing, to pushing a button and having it appear on screen. I miss seeing kids with artistic talent drawing and creating things with their own individual design idiom. Now, with a computer, work comes out in a cut-and-paste way.
“On the other hand, using a computer has allowed students with great imaginations, but no real artistic communication skill with their hands, to be able to express themselves and be part of a creative group that would not have been available to them in the past.”
A student of architecture himself, Blankenship has always looked for unique learning opportunities that he can share with his students. In the summer of 2003, he traveled to the Four Corners where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, to study the culture, architecture and art of the ancient Anasazi Indians.
He has also shared his lifelong admiration of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 2004, Blankenship spent a week working and studying with architects from the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust at Wright’s 1889 prairie-style home and studio in Oak Park, Ill.
“The experience of sitting at the tables and under the roof where Wright and his apprentices created so many masterpieces was, and still is, hard for me to adequately express,” Blankenship said in a 2004 Alumni Record article.
Over the years he has also made numerous architecture resources available to his students, such as books from his private collection and websites pertaining to works by Wright and other famous architects.
Changing the Game
Outside the classroom, Blankenship’s influence has been felt most strongly on the athletic fields. In addition to coaching, he started the softball program in the 1980s and was the school’s athletic director for nine years, from 1989 to 1998.
“I wrote the computer program that we used to arrange for officials and schedule games that the athletic department just recently stopped using,” he said. “We also hired full-time trainers and bought golf carts for them so they could move quickly from field to field and take care of the kids. We also worked to make sure the different athletic fields were connected by walkie-talkie so we could communicate during games and practices. We also started staffing the weight room, and had a lifeguard at the pool whenever it was open.
“I’m proud of those accomplishments because it put us on a track that was the right way to be moving as a school.”
Even though he didn’t originally intend to make teaching his career, Blankenship is glad he made that long-ago phone call to Headmaster Briggs.
“It has never felt like work because it is fun working with the kids,” Blankenship said. “It is a charge to see a student come in not knowing how to do something and have them walk out of the class with a new set of skills. It is so great to see a student putting in extra time on a project because they love it. Plus having alumni come back and tell me they are still using some of the skills they learned in one of my classes is nice; luckily they only remember the good times.”
After 40 years in the classroom and on the athletic fields, Blankenship has stored up so many memories that it is hard to single one out.
“There are so many and they all center around the students achieving something, either in athletics or in the classroom,” he said. “Seeing them develop new skills was always special.
“There are always the individual meets (in athletics) that you remember; maybe beating an archrival, but it’s hard to pick just one.”
But there are two moments that clearly stand out in his mind, as evidenced by the framed photos hanging in his office: “the time we beat U.S., 56-0, in wrestling at their gym; and the fact that my children, David ’89 and Rachel ’91, both had the opportunity to attend and graduate from Reserve.”
And he still remembers an important piece of advice given to him when he joined the faculty by longtime member Bill Moos.
“Bill told me to invest in a life away from campus,” Blankenship said. “We took that to heart and bought a house and that was probably the best piece of advice I ever got in my life.”
Even though he is retiring from full-time teaching, Blankenship has no plans to slow down.
“I have four grandkids involved in athletics and I spend time following and watching their games,” he said. “I also want to get back to doing some of my own art, including welded metal sculptures, functional stained glass and wood-crafted pieces. I used to do water coloring 25 years ago and I was pretty good at it, but now those skills need some work and I hope to get back to being as good as I remember being. I still have my 1959 Mercedes 190 SL that I want to restore and drive. I won’t be totally absent from Reserve, as we have plans in place for me to teach part time for a while.
“I also want to spend a few more months each year hitting the links – I’ve more than doubled the golf season (now that I’m retiring).”
Copyright © 2012 Western Reserve Academy
All Rights Reserved