Hill software engineer, a passionate dancer, dies at 78


Stephen “Steve” Blum, 78, a Mt. Airy native who lived the last 19 years of his life in Chestnut Hill and had a long career as a software engineer with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the world's premier research institutions, died Oct. 29 at the Meadowview Nursing Home in Lafayette Hill of complications following heart surgery. 

Blum's early years were marked by a close relationship with his loving parents, Kay and Isadore (“Izzy”), a naval officer in the South Pacific during World War II; his aunt Mame, the first female dentist to be licensed in Pennsylvania, and especially his younger brother, Michael, born three years later.

Blum graduated from Central High School (219th graduating class) in 1963 and from Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) in 1968 with a degree in engineering. Then, he began his career as a software engineer with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a member of the Computing and Telecommunications Division, which included work with the Atomic Energy Commission.

According to Blum's first cousin, Don Mankin, a travel author who blogs as the “Adventure Geezer,” “Steve was known for two notable achievements at Oak Ridge. The first was his work on the first computerized personnel timekeeping system, and the second was the vegan barbecues he hosted at his home, long before most people had even heard the word ‘vegan.’ Steve was also one of the first at Oak Ridge to merge a successful career as an engineer with a decidedly hippie lifestyle.”

Dan Heitzer, another first cousin of Blum's, told us last week, “I never heard Steve say anything bad about anyone else. Never! … My father died when I was 9. Steve’s father, my Uncle Iz, often took Steve, his brother Michael and me on weekends to Curtis Arboretum, various natural museums, aquariums and Aunt Mame’s farm.

“When we asked him years ago what he did for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), he smiled and said it was secret. When I last saw him in the hospital a week before he passed, I asked again if he could now tell me what he did with the AEC.  He smiled broadly and said ‘no.’”

In 1992, this Drexel-educated engineer took a 180-degree turn when he attended his first contra dance, a variation of 17th-century English and French country dance. The music was lively and old-timey. People were hooting with joy, stomping and swinging, skirts spinning, totally involved in the dance. And smiling. "Dancing is my main social interaction," Blum told the Local in a 2015 interview.

“My definition of happiness is now a great band and a good partner,” he added. "When I first started contra dancing, I noticed my cheek muscles ached from all the smiling. It was fun and flirtatious. Best of all, I didn't have to be Fred Astaire to learn the basic steps. I was immediately hooked. I was laughing, making mistakes, and everyone was fine with it."

Ilana Blum, Steve's niece, told us, “Steve was, first and foremost, very dedicated to his family. When his mom (my grandma) started to require more support, he packed up his life in Knoxville and moved back to Philly to be with her, whether that meant driving her to doctor's appointments or taking her to a Sunday matinee movie. He had a great sense of humor (sometimes a wicked sense of humor) and a great smile, especially when he was out on the dance floor. Dancing allowed him to participate in something physical while also forcing him to interact with others … He was able to travel all over the country after retiring, participating in dances and meeting new communities and new friends along the way. He was also a great and adventurous cook, constantly swapping recipes with my dad over gmail.”  

After Blum's father died, he took his 80-year-old mother to a street festival in Chestnut Hill, where the Dukes of Destiny blues band was performing. According to Blum in our 2015 interview, "Mom said, 'Let’s dance!' She was in her 80s, but when she heard the music, her eyes lit up, and we danced in the cobblestone street … Dancing has been really important in bringing me out of my shell. Once you feel confident, you can goof around and have fun, even when you make mistakes."

Sondra Aptekman Brand, another of Blum's first cousins, told us, “On my 80th birthday, Steve drove me down to Atlantic City. I went to the Hard Rock Casino, and Steve went to the beach. I had $5 to spend on the slots and lost the four dollars but on the fifth dollar, I won $149. Steve said 'Great,' and I treated him to dinner. It was one of the best birthdays I ever had … Steve wasn't just my cousin. He was even more than a friend; he was like the brother I never had.”

Blum was predeceased by his parents, aunt and beloved brother, Michael. He is survived by Ilana, his niece; her husband, Nate, and son, Micah; his sister-in-law, Barbara; cousins Sondra, Dan, Don, Billie and Marlene; and the countless friends he made on the dance floor

Stacia Friedman contributed to this article. For more information, email lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com