MANCHESTER, NH – Dustin Blake, at 16, was an aspiring actor and playwright. A rising junior at Central High School, he had an uncanny sense of comedic timing that made him a standout performer among his peers in Central’s drama troupe, The Maskers. He was in many ways a Clark Kent kind of guy, unassuming yet magnetic. His former shy adolescent self had finally come of age; he’d recently grown by leaps and bounds into a heroic version of himself, a spunky kid who wore his Superman T-shirt like a badge of honor and an inside joke – not just because he was a fan of the comic book hero, but in many ways, Dustin was himself a Superman ready to conquer the world.
By all accounts, he was the life of the party, with a heart as big as his talent.
Just as his life was beginning to take shape – he was recently elected president of the drama club, had fallen in love with a wonderful girl, and had landed his first job at a local movie theater – Dustin’s life came to an abrupt end Aug. 4. He was rushed to the hospital after returning home from a date, suffering chest pains, and died of a rare and undiagnosed heart condition, an aortic dissection, which took him with no warning.
His family and friends are struggling to imagine what life will look like now, without Dustin in it.
“He was really starting to come into his own at 16,” says his cousin, Melissa Evans, 28, of Nashua. Although there was a dozen-year gap between them, Melissa says the two had also transcended their DNA and were enjoying a different kind of kinship over the past year.
“Ever since he became a young adult we discovered we had similar interests in movies and TV shows. We were friends. We bonded over our love of ‘Dr. Who,’ and his interest in theater and films. Just a couple of weeks ago when the Nashua Farmer’s Market opened, we had lunch together, and he was talking about wanting to go to film school in New York. Dustin was writing scripts, and he had gained this confidence – he was so sure of himself, so sure of what he wanted to do and what he loved,” says Melissa.
For years Dustin accompanied his grandfather, beekeeper John Blake of Manchester, to local farmers markets where together they sold DJ’s Honey. Melissa says she recently began sitting in for Dustin after he landed his first “real” job, working for Cinemagic movie theater.
“It was the perfect fit for him. I volunteered my Sundays to spend time with my uncle and fill in for Dustin while he worked at the movie theater – the table gets busy on Sundays. He really liked doing it, and I think it’s where he started to develop some of his adult personality, by interacting with customers,” says Melissa. “I’d like to continue doing it in Dustin’s memory.”
She says Dustin was so full of personality – he loved the Blues Brothers, and music from the 1950s.
“Most people would classify him as an old soul. He was wise beyond his years, which is why he and I got along so well. We had just started to develop more of a relationship, because he looked at the world not as a 16 year old, but as someone who had things figured out already. He was confident in himself to be exactly who he was,” says Melissa.
The family is looking into establishing a scholarship fund in Dustin’s memory to benefit Central High School’s drama club, a fitting tribute given how entrenched he was in theater.
Jake Leonard was a couple years ahead of Dustin at Central, but the two of them bonded over the experience of getting over their cold musical theater feet by performing in “Godspell” together.
“I was Judas, and Dustin was one of the disciples. We worked together every day for three or four months, Monday through Friday, and I really got to know Dustin from that experience,” says Leonard, who graduated from Central in June. He’s heading to UNH, and is currently in training with the NH Air National Guard. It’s difficult to fathom that Dustin will miss out on all the promise that was waiting for him in his last two years of high school.
“We needed about 20 actors for Godspell, but we only had 12, which meant Dustin’s role was hard, as part of the ensemble cast, but he did it,” says Jake. “It might sound like a small thing, but he was nervous about the simplest things, like jumping. With all the choreography and everything, he had a hard time with it, but by the time we did the show, he was not only jumping, he was soaring, and loving it all.”
Jake and fellow Masker Lydon Philbrook, a sophomore, reminisced about Dustin earlier this week, along with Maskers’ director Dan Pelletier, while seated outside Cafe la Reine. They recalled a dear friend who had found his passion on the stage.
“Dustin was in four shows with me, and when I think about a defining story that captures Dustin, I think about when we did Godspell. He wanted to quit after the first dance rehearsal – he’d never been in a musical before. I kept saying things like, ‘Give it one more day,’ or ‘Let’s finish the week.’ He never gave up, and I think he discovered a lot about himself during that process,” says Pelletier.
“He ended up being one of the more talented and entertaining cast members, and after that, he started coming out for all the musicals. He didn’t let his inexperience scare him away. It was truly inspiring to see that in a student,” Pelletier says. “If I could get that kind of stick-with-it attitude from all my students when things get tough, my job would be easy.”
Dustin was a quick study and eager student of theater, says Pelletier. He had a thirst for knowledge that compelled him to volunteer for every workshop or task needed, from behind the scenes to writing and directing. He wrote and directed a one-act play for the end of the year drama club showcase.
“He was always sending out things he was working on to people – he had a lot of bold ideas,” Pelletier says. “And as president, he was really the voice of the other club members.”
Pelletier also recalled a classic “Dustin moment” that took place during a performance of “Footloose” with ActorSingers of Nashua, where Dustin was supposed to be a background actor in a particular scene. His role was to play a percussion instrument in a band at a country-western club.
It ended up becoming something of a “more cowbell” moment, in the spirit of the now-famous SNL skit featuring Will Ferrell.
“We were going to give him a tambourine. He asked if he could do something different, and I said sure, whatever. So the stage is set, and the curtain opens and reveals the band and there’s Dustin with this blue snow shovel, and he’s banging it on the floor like it was an instrument. It was goofy and comical and I literally fell out of my chair. He stole the scene,” Pelletier says.
Lydon says the last time he saw Dustin was on the last day of school in June. Lydon, who was also in chorus with Dustin, said he learned about Dustin’s passing while away at UNH for band camp. He was planning to catch up Dustin for a movie night when he got back to Manchester.
“I have some scripts he sent to me. We were going to work on a script together this summer and work on a film next year,” Lydon says. “It was good stuff. To be honest, when I first read the email from Dan, I didn’t believe it. Not that I thought it was a joke, but it made no sense. It still makes no sense.”
Jake and Lydon agreed that Dustin’s fun-loving nature and huge heart made him an inspiration to so many other students.
“He never had a bad word to say about anyone. And I don’t think you’ll find anyone with a bad word to say about him. In fact, he had a rule: There’s no drama in drama club,” says Jake. “That’s how he was. He was so serious about what we were doing, he took it all to heart.”
Dustin made acting look easy, and relished in being an ambassador for the drama program whenever The Maskers would take their show on the road to the middle schools, in an effort to recruit new drama club members.
“Dustin always got the loudest applause. He was inspiring. I think about how good he was, and how maybe that middle schooler who might have watched Dustin perform could go on to become the next great actor, just because he was inspired to join the drama club after seeing this 16-year-old kid perform, someone who had the guts to get on stage and just be himself,” Jake says.
Maureen Hamel is Dustin’s great aunt, sister to John Blake. She and her husband, Michael Hamel, said the progress Dustin had made in the past few years, since connecting with the drama program at school, was “phenomenal.”
“All kids struggle at some point in their teen years, but when he hit Central High School, that’s when he soared,” says Maureen Hamel. “Theater and chorus, it was his special gift and he shared it. Dustin was such a positive influence on everybody. He went from being in the shadows those first two years to being a leader in the light, his passion for fine arts was everything to him. He was going to be writing a screenplay. He’d just bought lighting and video equipment for himself and his friends to start making their own movies. He really was self-motivated, far more than the average kid at that age.”
The Hamels proudly attended his performances, and videotaped them all.
“I have to think Dustin was an indirect influence on other people, just by being who he was. If someone like him can come out of the quiet shadows and step into the light, certainly other kids would see that they can, too,” says Michael Hamel. “I can’t help but think there are other kids in that school now willing to have some courage and do the same thing, just because Dustin showed them it could be done.”
Maureen Hamel said watching her great-nephew go from being a quiet boy to being a confident presence on stage was a joy she will carry with her.
“His sense of humor, his side-splitting laughter – he was so witty and funny, you couldn’t help but laugh. He was terrific at making people smile, and he did a damn good job of it,” Maureen Hamel says.
Losing Dustin is a heartbreak for the whole family, she says.
“The other thing is that it’s not just that our family has lost its shining star. Dustin had developed his friendship with Hannah Barnard, who became his girlfriend. And I read something written by her mother, that at first she thought it was a high school fling, but then she realized these two kids were able to feel love, the love between a boy and a girl, and at least Dustin had experienced that. And then I read Dustin’s last post to Hannah, the night before he died, and it said, ‘Every Superman needs his Lois Lane.’ I was so touched by that, by him telling the world about the love that he felt for her, and how fortunate he was to be able to experience that kind of love, something that so many people never feel,” says Maureen Hamel. “I haven’t met Hannah, yet, but she must be one special girl.”
Dustin Blake was known for his levity, and by the signature Star Wars baseball cap he always wore. He loved listening to oldies, and had an infectious laugh, a real zest for life. He was quick with a joke, and at the same time, so serious about his pursuit of acting, always seeking out criticism and correction, because it was his dream to become the best that he could be.
Losing him so suddenly, so tragically, will leave a void in the world that will never be filled, says his aunt.
“Since the news has been out, many people have speculated about what happened, or asked whether he was doing drugs or something like that. Not Dustin. He had too much passion for life to even consider doing something like that,” she says. “Dustin lived with his grandparents – my brother and his wife – and I give them so much credit for helping him to become the person he was. My heart breaks for them, my heart breaks for all of us.”
Visitation for Dustin Blake will be held in the Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, 243 Hanover St., Manchester on Wednesday, August 9, from 4 to 7 p.m. Funeral will be held in the Phaneuf Funeral Home on Thursday, August 10, at 10 a.m. followed by an entombment service at the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Mausoleum, 474 Goffstown Rd., Manchester. Friends and relatives are invited. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to assist Dustin’s family with funeral expenses at Gofundme.com.