As a physician, a teacher and a philanthropist, Dr. J. Steven Blake (BA 80) takes a holistic approach to helping others. Dr. Blake leads his own medical practice in Philadelphia, Pa., holds several prominent professional distinctions and teaches a new generation of medical students. In addition to these many personal successes, he continues to devote considerable time, money and effort to benefit high school students in his hometown of Clarksdale. It’s all part of giving back to the community.
Dr. Blake funds a variety of scholarships for Coahoma Agricultural High School, his alma mater. The first, established in 2000, was named for his late parents Alfred and Irma Blake. “My father taught at Coahoma Agricultural High School for a number of years,” said Blake. “Dad used to always say, ‘don’t cover my casket in flowers. If you’re going to give me flowers, let me be alive to see and smell them.’ So before my parents died, I established my first scholarship in their name. They were both able to see that.” Blake went on to establish four more scholarships at the high school, which he affectionately refers to as “Aggie.” Each of the subsequent scholarships—The Shirley Catchings English Award, The Patricia Brown Biology Award and The Barbara Booker Chemistry Award— were named for important teachers in his life. “Each of these teachers I thought were significant mentors in my life and mentors for other people,” he explained.
The scholarships include a cash prize and a plaque. While these awards have been important, Blake’s most prominent program is the annual “East Coast Cultural Enrichment Award.” This program awards 10 “Aggie” students each year with a ten-day, all-expenses paid trip to New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.
Dr. Blake established the program up as a way to provide a cultural exposure that he had not experienced when he first moved to Philadelphia. “When I came to Philadelphia,” he said, “I hadn’t spent any time on the east coast. My parents had taken us to California and the upper Midwest, to Chicago and those areas. But I had never visited New York, Boston, DC. I got the idea that, ‘what if mom and dad would have brought us to New York to see a Broadway play? What kind of cultural enrichment would I have achieved as a result of that? What kind of impact would it have had on my focus or dedication as far as my career was concerned?”
The award is given to 11th grade students who meet a minimum grade point average and are involved in extracurricular activities both within school and in the community. In addition, students are required to write a 500-word essay explaining how the experience would enrich their life and benefit them, and how they would use the experience to help others in their community.
While only nine students qualified the first year, more than 35 students met the GPA criteria this year and Dr. Blake chose the winners based on extracurricular activities. Seeing so many students working hard and striving to attain the award is exciting and rewarding, Dr. Blake said. It’s a way of reaching back to his community.
The program has been so successful that the two other area high schools—Clarksdale High and Coahoma High—have been asking to get involved, and Dr. Blake is considering extending the program to include one student from each of the other schools.
His dedication to his hometown is even more impressive considering he left Mississippi for Pennsylvania more than 25 years ago. After earning a degree in chemistry from Ole Miss, Dr. Blake graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, one of the preeminent schools in the field of osteopathic medicine. He currently sits on the Board of Trustees for that institution and is an assistant clinical professor in the department of medicine.
Dr. Blake learned of this branch of medicine through his pre-med advisor at Ole Miss, Dr. Beckman. Osteopathic medicine is a discipline that focuses on a holistic approach to health care and emphasizes the musculoskeletal system, said Dr. Blake. Practitioners receive a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy) degree in lieu of a M.D. (Medical Doctor). “The philosophical approach to practicing medicine is slightly different between the two,” he explained. “Osteopathic physicians have a holistic approach in the sense that we recognize that all components of the body are intimately interconnected. Proper and stable health is predicated on the stability of these different systems interacting together. Everything else is the same. The same surgery, the ability to write prescriptions, delivering babies, colon cancer screening. None of that is any different. It’s just a philosophical approach to practicing medicine.”
Dr. Blake’s major field of practice is gastroenterology, and his dedication to fighting colon cancer is exemplified by his efforts in organizing community efforts to educate people about this preventable and deadly disease.
“Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, second only to lung cancer,” he said. “But colon cancer is preventable, and prevention is predicated on timely and appropriate screening. The community is unfortunately naïve and even ignorant about the fact that it is preventable and the procedure, the colonoscopy, is a relatively benign procedure. The fear that exists about having those procedures really shouldn’t exist at all. If I can educate one person, and they, armed with the proper information talk to ten more people, it goes on and on exponentially and then the community has the proper knowledge to protect themselves and others.”
Through his efforts to prevent colon cancer in his current hometown of Philadelphia or reaching out to provide cultural and educational opportunities to students in his childhood home in Mississippi, Dr. Blake’s holistic approach to helping others extends far beyond his clinic. “It’s all about the community,” said Dr. Blake. “It’s all about reaching back.”