Authorities retrieve missing Norwich man’s body from river

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-05-2023 7:18 PM

NORWICH — When the Norwich Historical Society was burglarized last Thursday, the first person neighbor Priscilla Vincent called after notifying police was Roger Blake, whose dedication to meticulously looking after the 1807 clapboard federal house in the heart of village — from repainting its white picket fence every summer to oiling the wooden kitchen counters every winter — was legend.

Vincent did not reach Blake that evening, but he showed up at the Historical Society’s building fresh at 7:30 a.m. the next morning to inspect the damage and make an assessment of what needed to be done for repairs.

None of that was a surprise to anyone who knew Blake, of course.

“He was the first to show up if there was ever any problem,” Vincent, whose home next door to the Society’s was also broken into that evening, said on Tuesday. “He just did it unwaveringly, willingly and immediately. And in all seasons.”

Blake is believed to have died on Monday while working in his yard on Kendall Station Road in Norwich, on the bank of the Connecticut River. Family members believe he may have fallen into the river and drowned, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game. On Tuesday, a crew recovered Blake’s body on the New Hampshire side of the river in Hanover, the agency reported in a social media post.

Stunned Norwich residents are mourning the death of Blake, 74, a former chairman of the Norwich Selectboard.

>f F<Only 17 months earlier, he had managed himself to escape death and save his family members’ lives when a hot-air balloon in which they were riding suffered a mishap. The accident over Fairlee claimed the life of the balloon’s pilot, Brian Boland, but Blake managed to land the balloon safely, with his daughter and granddaughter aboard, in a field near Bradford.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Blake told the Valley News after the accident. “I just kept looking for a place to land.”

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On Tuesday afternoon, as word began to circulate that the missing man for whom emergency responders and a dive team began searching on Monday evening was Blake, Norwich residents recalled a community member who embodied the best of New England’s small-town, help-your-neighbor values. He was a generous handyman who was always willing to show up with a wrench, hammer and paint brush.

“When he saw something that needed to be done, he just quietly did it,” Sarah Rooker, director of the Norwich Historical Society, said on Tuesday.

“He didn’t want a ‘thank you.’ He wanted to be an example that showed others when you saw something that needed to be done that you took ownership of it and care for it.”

Rooker ticked off a list of projects in which Blake had a hand: building trails at the Milton Frye Nature Area behind Marion Cross School; reclaiming a discarded beam on Gilman Island and refurbishing it into a bench to be placed back at the island’s camping area; tending to Waterman Hill Cemetery; sweeping up pine needles from his yard and taking them in buckets to the transfer station for others to use as free mulch; and taking it upon himself to make sure the library’s outdoor benches were stored properly during the winter.

“Roger was an example of one of those longtime residents who cares about the place they lived in,” Rooker said.

Blake’s willingness to help out those who needed something done around the house sounded right to Ed Childs, who served on the Selectboard with Blake around 2010, Childs recalled on Tuesday.

“He fixed my lawnmower. He put chains on the tractor for me. He cleaned up brush around my property,” Childs said. “He could fix anything.”

Such skills were probably not a stretch for Blake, a crack mechanic who for 18 years operated Roger’s Garage in White River Junction — located at the corner of Hartford Avenue and Maple Street in the building now occupied by fuel distributor Cota & Cota — before closing the shop in 2003 at age 55.

Former customers recalled Blake as having the calming bedside manner of an empathetic doctor when delivering the bad news of what ailed their car.

“As if the car had feelings he didn’t want to offend,” one admiring customer told a Valley News reporter when the shop closed.

Before going into business for himself, Blake ran Dulac’s Garage in White River Junction, which was owned by his grandfather and located on the site on Hartford Avenue now occupied by Knight’s Funeral Home.

Childs said that although he would sometimes get into “tiffs” with Blake on the Selectboard, he nonetheless remembered his colleague as “a pretty good guy.”

“He was a peacemaker. That was his style,” said Childs, who described Blake as “more laid-back.”

(Blake, who was elected chairman of the Selectboard in 2010 only after another selectboard member who wanted the job failed to secure a second for the nomination, told the Valley News at the time that he was not entirely comfortable with the role and wanted to be thought of as “just one of the board members.”)

Former Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton said Blake “was very good to work with. He asked the right questions and managed the board while letting the town manager do his job,” a sensibility which subsequent Norwich selectboards have not always been credited.

“He was not confrontational and found ways to get people to work together,” Fulton said.

Exactly what happened on Monday afternoon that led to Blake’s death is not clear.

But New Hampshire Fish and Game said that Blake had been out in his yard “raking and tidying up” and was last seen by family members at 3 p.m.

At 5 p.m., when family members noticed Blake hadn’t come inside, they became worried and went to look for him.

“They noticed a rake halfway down a steep embankment heading toward the river” and “they immediately called for assistance, as they felt he might have fallen into the river,” Fish and Game said in its social media post.

The Hanover Fire Department, which has the equipment and personnel to handle water rescue operations, was dispatched to help Norwich’s police and fire departments along with responders from Hartford and Lebanon fire departments.

Blake was not found that evening, and the rescue operation eventually turned into a recovery operation, said Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan said on Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning at about 10 a.m., a New Hampshire Fish & Game dive team found Blake’ body on the New Hampshire side of the river, “downstream of his residence,” the agency said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

CORRECTION: Roger Blake’s former auto repair business was named Roger’s Garage. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for the business.

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