A tribute to Joe Blake and his impact on
the liberal arts

Joe Blake with Students

story by Beth Etter
photos by PhoCo Photography
published Feb. 17, 2022

Though Joe Blake has been involved with Colorado State University since 2006 as a member of the Board of Governors, the CSU System Chancellor (09-11), and then Chancellor Emeritus, Blake took an active role in the College of Liberal Arts in 2018 when he founded the Blake Leadership Scholars Program. Blake had a desire to connect CSU’s excellent faculty with excellent students and created the merit-based leadership program to do so.

“I have nothing but the highest regard for the faculty at CSU. They’re just remarkable. And how do you enhance their prestige and their value better than bringing the best young minds for them to light up?” Blake said in a 2019 interview.

A speech by Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey when Blake was a student there in the 1950s left a strong impression on him, and he’s carried it forward: “The liberal arts are really the liberating arts,” he said. “It makes life so much more interesting, and your perspectives are broader and more diverse as well.”

And Blake has lived that philosophy in his life and career. As a lawyer, former FBI agent, and successful business person in Denver, as well as an undergraduate English major and community theater actor, Blake saw the importance, and the great need, for people in business, politics, and civics to be trained in the liberal arts.

Joe Blake having lunch with department chairs from the College of Liberal Arts in 2019.

In these arenas, “you’ve got to have some thoughtful people who are critical thinkers. And I think the liberal arts is the fount of all that. (We are) creating phenomenal citizens for a world that’s in desperate need of phenomenal citizens,” he said.

To create a program that connects high achieving students with liberal arts faculty, Blake worked with Ben Withers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Roze Hentschell, associate dean of academic programs and professor of English.

“Working with Joe Blake on building, implementing, and administering the Blake Leadership Scholars Program has been a high point of my time in the Dean’s Office,” says Hentschell. “The Blake program is the realization of Joe’s vision to cultivate leadership, foster civic engagement, and celebrate the value of the liberal arts among CLA students.”

Joe Blake and Leadership Scholars

Joe Blake with the first cohort of Blake Leadership Scholars in 2019.

Since the first cohort of six Blake Leadership Scholars joined CSU in Fall 2019, Blake met with this high achieving, civically engaged group to talk about leadership, hear about what they’re learning, and share ideas.

“The only thing quicker than Joe Blake’s smile was his readiness to extend a helping hand. When he saw a need or an opportunity to lift others, he acted, and in creating the Blake Leadership Scholars, he extended that legacy of service-oriented leadership to a new generation,” says Zach Hutchins, associate professor of English and faculty mentor for the Blake Leadership Scholars program.

“Whenever he met with the Scholars, he was eager to know what they were reading and learning; he would leave with a list of books he was eager to read, and he always left behind an even longer list of books that he wanted to share with us,” Hutchins added. “His love of learning and his passion for life was infectious. Every room he walked into seemed a little brighter for his presence.”

And the students agree.

“Meeting Joe for the first time was fascinating. Joe was a man who seemingly knew something about everything. As we (the Blake Scholars) went around the table introducing ourselves (name, hometown, major, etc), Joe made a specific and intentional effort to connect with everyone on an individual level. When he was talking to you, you felt it abundantly clear that you were the sole focus for him at that moment. Joe was, without a doubt, one of the most genuine people I have ever met, and he is a huge inspiration in my life to do good and always treat people well.”

–James Strong (International Studies and Russian, Air Force ROTC cadet)

“Joe was incredibly generous with his time and resources—it is this generosity which has given me and more than 20 other Blake Leadership Scholars incredible support and connection throughout our time as students. It was a privilege and a delight to know Joe in the small way that I did—I am hopeful that his legacy of generosity, engagement, and genuine love for others will carry on through the relationships and programs he has established at CSU.” 

—Micaela McConahy (Journalism and Media Communication, and International Development)

“Every time I had the privilege to meet with Mr. Blake, he would ask about me: my schooling, my goals, and my life. He always remembered our previous conversations, a testament to his loving character.”

—Peter Wilson (English, Philosophy)

“Joe’s infectious positivity brought humor and joy into every interaction we had, and I am so grateful for the time I spent with him — he personified leadership and humility and challenged me to be a better leader.” 

—Corinne Neustadter (History, Political Science)

“He has modeled for the students—and all of us who had the good fortune to know him—that there is deep satisfaction when one is continuously intellectually curious and finds joy in learning. We are grateful that we are able to carry on his legacy with the Scholars Program, with students at the center,” says Hentschell.

In 2019, Blake donated $5 million to the College of Liberal Arts in support of and pursuit of excellence in a liberal arts education. The gift was the largest to the College at the time, and helped the College achieve its State Your Purpose campaign goal.

Joe Blake at CLA donor event
Joe Blake at CLA donor event
Joe Blake at CLA donor event

Joe Blake at a Blake Leadership Scholars event in September 2021.

“Joe’s $5 million gift will be transformative for CLA and will enable us to continue to support students and to spotlight our excellent faculty,” says Ben Withers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “For me personally, Joe’s true gift is the time he spent with us in the college: times he spent breaking bread with our chairs, faculty, and students talking about the liberal arts and how to foster our disciplines for new generations. He’s left us with the potential to carry on those conversations.”

The loss of Joe Blake will be felt throughout Colorado and specifically in the College of Liberal Arts at CSU, as his infectious enthusiasm and positivity and ebullient promotion of the liberal arts inspired and reaffirmed for faculty, staff, and students the importance and value of exploring the human experience.

Blake was slated to receive an honorary degree from the College of Liberal Arts at the Spring 2022 Commencement ceremonies on Friday, May 13, 2022. His family will receive his award in March with a public celebration in May.

A version of this story originally appeared in the College of Liberal Arts Magazine.