updated 6/22/2007 6:50:02 PM ET 2007-06-22T22:50:02

Elias Blake Jr., a leading advocate for blacks in higher education and a former president of Atlanta's Clark College, has died at 77, his friends said.

He was found dead Sunday, apparently of natural causes, at his home in Washington, said Tola Thompson, a friend.

In search of ways to motivate disadvantaged high school students, Blake in the 1960s helped create Upward Bound, the federal program aimed at recruiting low-income and first-generation college students. He became the program's Southeast deputy director, guiding its efforts on 15 campuses.

In the 1970s he became president of the Institute for Services to Education, a now defunct policy group that helped develop programs for colleges to attract and retain black students.

Emerging as a national leader on education issues, he advised both President Nixon and President Carter on the needs of blacks in higher education.

During this time, he conducted research on such then-new topics as black studies programs and how historically black colleges could continue fulfilling a unique role when campuses were being desegregated.

"The charges of reverse discrimination are getting more insistent (at black colleges)," he told The Washington Post in 1976. "A threat to the legal status of all-black schools exists and we're just trying to raise the sensitivity of the public to these issues."

He left the Washington-based group in 1977 to become president of historically black Clark College in Atlanta. He led the school for 10 years, overseeing the launch of its mass communications program and laying the groundwork for its merger with Atlanta University. A music aficionado, he also helped form a network to coordinate college programs in jazz.

"He was so quiet and so normal, no one knew how much he did," said Gloria Scott, a former Clark College vice president. "He was probably the single most important individual who helped influence educational policy in the last three decades. It was his research and development work that started all this."

Blake attended segregated schools as a child in Brunswick, Ga. He earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois in the 1950s, a time when there were so few blacks on campus "you needed a guide to find them," he would later say.

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