Plainfield man is a ‘guardian angel’ for tennis athletes

PLAINFIELD — “She’s just a kid,’’ the Plainfield resident said of his girlfriend, Barbara Wallace. “She’s 76. She looks good. I don’t know why the hell she be messing around with such an old man like me.’’

He doesn’t look so bad himself; Van Blake could pass for 65. He frets about forgetting his keys, or cell phone number, but he is as funny, and spry, as ever.

Asked why he is wearing a Jets sweatshirt when he is an avowed Giants fan, he says it’s to earn points with Wallace, a Jets fan. Asked if he was a good student at Plainfield High School, Van Blake smiled. “It took me a long time to become a good student,’’ he said. “I was too much of a dreamer.”

What was he dreaming about? “That’s what the teachers always wanted to know,’’ he replied.

To thousands of Plainfield kids over the years, Van Blake has served as a “guardian angel,’’ according to local tennis pro Paul Prah. Van Blake founded the Plainfield Tennis Council, which provides tennis instructional programs for middle and high school students. He coached the Plainfield High School tennis team for 30 years, from 1979 until last year. When it came time to name Plainfield’s state-of-the-art tennis facility, completed in 2001, one person seemed the logical choice.

“I was sitting on the curb one day when the school board president walked up and said, ‘Donald, are you interested in these courts being named after you?’ ‘ I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be interested.’ ’’

Amazingly, he didn’t start playing tennis until he was in his 50s — and then only to impress a tennis-playing lady friend.

Upon discharge in 1945, he attended Hampton College — now Hampton University — on the G.I. Bill. Returning to Plainfield, he got a job in the metal shop at Hubbard Middle School. When the high school tennis coach left, Van Blake applied for the job.

All those years of being Plainfield’s tennis “guardian angel’’ didn’t go unnoticed. In 2008, Van Blake was inducted into the United States Tennis Association’s Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame.

The Donald Van Blake Tennis Center, with 16 courts, shade shelters, bleachers and drinking fountains, has received an Outstanding Facility Award from the USTA.

“Most of the kids who go there now look at the plaque, and think, ‘That’s guy’s dead,’ ’’ Van Blake said, laughing. “They’re surprised to see that I’m still alive.’’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.