When Leonard Blessing attended Montclair State on the G.I. Bill after serving in the Air Force during World War II, the campus boasted 800 students and three buildings. Now, the Veterans housing that he and his wife Frances lived in is long gone and the campus is completely transformed, but Blessing isn’t nostalgic.
The award-winning Millburn High School science teacher and nationally recognized educator (long-since retired) never lost touch with his alma mater. Pre-COVID-19, he continued to visit campus two or three times monthly for concerts, lectures and donor events, driving from his home in New Providence, New Jersey. At 99, curiosity and a forward-looking interest still propel Blessing, now as ever.
He left a promising career at Prudential in 1947 to pursue a science degree at Montclair State, followed quickly with a master’s in Science Education. Becoming an educator led to a personally enriching career that took him and his family around the world through his leadership in science education conferences in France and Russia and on teaching sabbaticals in England.
“It changed my life,” says Blessing of his college experience. “Montclair State and Millburn High School are written across my heart.”
At home, Blessing pushed the envelope with high school science. “He recognized the importance of conservation and ecology in the ’50s,” explains his daughter Leslee Mabee ’76. “He saw the value of having an electron microscope in the high school science program in the early ’70s, and the need for a computer in the department in the early ’80s.” Meanwhile, “throughout his career, he continued to tap into the strong relationships he had developed with Montclair State faculty and students,” says Mabee.
In his spare time, Blessing played piano, contract bridge, wrote poetry and short fiction, performed research and coached basketball, chess and track. Before the pandemic, he continued to play piano pre-service on Sundays at New Providence United Methodist Church, and played and taught contract bridge a few times a week. He was scheduled to be installed in the Millburn High School Athletics Hall of Fame this past April.
Since COVID-19 struck, Blessing has taken social distancing “very seriously” – according to Mabee – “so much so, that he started staying home five weeks before it was required.” As of September, Mabee reports, “Dad continues to thrive in this strange world, even as he approaches his 100th birthday [in October]. His piano playing, weekly appointment with the church music director to record weekly piano music for the church’s online service, daily calls from me, and weekly gatherings – outside and socially distanced – with five church friends to listen to the service and share lunch have been key to helping him survive the social isolation.”
And he stays engaged with Montclair State, as a member of the 1908 Loyalty Society and as an appreciator of the arts and humanities. He has been excited to see the University grow while supporting its mission of providing affordable quality education to students who reflect the world.
“I’ve been an internationalist since I was a teenager. I’m glad to see so many foreign-born students at Montclair State. To see it opening the doors to the world for them as it did for me.”
It’s a world in which Blessing is still very much a part.
“He remains a consummate student, researcher, teacher, leader and friend,” says Mabee. “At 99, he is still filled with optimism and idealism and will always be a romanticist at his core. A more honorable and truthful man could not be found.”
Mabee and her older sister Lynn Smith both live in North Carolina but check in on Blessing regularly. His wife Frances passed away in 2016. “Seventy-three years married – I was lucky,” says Blessing.
Although his daughters have suggested he relocate to North Carolina and friends in Florida want him to move there, he stays put.
“Here in New Jersey, I’m somebody. I’m involved.”
–Mary Barr Mann