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A Life: Richard Steele, 1921 - 2011; 'He Had an Aura of Welcoming and Concern for the Other Guy'

Tunbridge — Richard Steele was a man who knew how to bridge gaps, to cross the chasm between people of different generations and backgrounds.

He was a kind, soft-spoken leader with a polished Southern accent who had a knack for making everyone in the room feel comfortable and included, which served him well not only in his long business career but also during the almost 30 years he spent in retirement, living in Tunbridge, working in his church and dealing with the myriad community projects he took on.

“He had a deep concern for others, but at the same time, he was very sophisticated and accomplished and deeply engaging in a casual conversation,” said his long-time friend Robert Borden, of Rochester, Vt., who got to know Steele and his wife, Virginia, initially through their church.

“He had an aura of welcoming and concern for the other guy. He was incredibly smart, but he never pushed that on you. You had to pull it out of him.”

He was a constant reader with an encyclopedic understanding of almost every topic that came his way. And he was passionate about classical music with an impressive collection of records that he kept carefully filed and catalogued, friends and family said.

Dick Steele, who died Aug. 15, 2011, at 89, also had a respect for strong women and wasn’t intimidated by them, Borden said, noting that Steele was a staunch advocate for women and served on the search committee that selected Mary Adelia McLeod as the first woman to serve as an Episcopal diocesan bishop in the U.S.

His admiration for strong women perhaps was forged by the women who brought him up and later by his wife and two daughters, friends and family members said. He was born in Charlotte, N.C., and raised by his mother and an aunt after his father died when he was six. His mother had to work to support Richard and his brother in a time when positions for women were limited. She did well in the corporate office of Esso Oil in Charlotte and was able to put her sons through college, but the family lived meagerly.

“His first job was digging ditches. He spent the whole summer digging ditches, and he used the money to buy a Brooks Brothers tuxedo to wear to the college dances,” his daughter Ayn Moore Steele said. “He was an interesting guy, who in a lot of ways had a very sad life, but he never complained and he made a lot out of it.”

Dick Steele was a tall man, well over six feet. He had the build for basketball, but focused his attention on his studies, he said. At 20, he graduated from the University of North Carolina, Phi Beta Kappa, with a degree in organic chemistry. After college, he went to work in 1941 as a chemist in Philadelphia at Rohm and Haas, one of the country’s largest chemical firms.

He spent the war years working there on such projects as developing mildew and fire resistant fabrics and gas-proofing clothing, his daughter Caroline Stewart Steele said. “His eyes weren’t good enough to qualify for combat duty.”

He went to Princeton University after the war and received a doctorate in chemistry in 1949. He returned to Rohm and Haas, where he became laboratory director and eventually director of research. That same year he and Virginia Keene Miller were married, a marriage that lasted 46 years until her death in 1995.

In 1964, he received the Olney Medal, a top honor in the textile industry, for the work that he did on developing permanent press.

“When they got back from getting that medal, he tried to convince my sister and me that he was a world famous chemist, but we just scoffed at him,” Caroline Steele said with a laugh.

In 1965, he joined Celanese Corp. as the head of research, and eventually became executive vice president of Celanese International, a job that required him to travel all over the world, but particularly in Latin America.

“He was traveling three weeks out of four, but by then my sister and I were away in school. My mother would travel with him when wives were invited,” Caroline Steele said.

Some of those trips were more exciting than others, Ayn Steele said.

“He came home from one trip and his eyebrows and hair were a little singed. When we asked him what happened, he said only that there was a fire. We asked where there had been a fire, and he just said ‘on the plane.’ ”

Although he traveled for a living, Steele still loved leisurely annual trips with his wife, particularly to London and other spots on the Continent, his daughters said.

“He and my mother loved to travel, and every summer they would send us to camp, and they’d go to Europe. I got so tired of looking at those slides from their trips to Europe, I didn’t go there until I was 28 or 29,” said Caroline Steele, who is an archeologist and has traveled the globe extensively.

Part of his job in Latin America was turning the operation of the Celanese plants over to local management, something he believed strongly in, Ayn Steele said.

“He was fluent in Spanish, and he learned Portuguese, and he really believed that the plants should be run by the people who lived there, not by Americans who couldn’t even speak the language” and knew nothing about the culture, she said. “That was just the way he was.”

In 1982, at 61, Dick Steele retired, and the family moved to their house in Tunbridge where they had spent time in the summer.

“I remember sitting around the kitchen table talking to him, and he said he couldn’t imagine retiring. A year later, he retired and moved to Vermont,” Caroline Steele said.

Initially, Dick Steele didn’t take to the slower pace of retirement in Vermont, his daughter said.

“It wasn’t too much later that I got a call from my mother, complaining that he was reorganizing the spices and putting everything in alphabetical order.”

And then, he discovered computers, which were just coming into wide use.

“One of the best things my mother did was get him an early computer that had to be attached to a television as a monitor. He became hooked. He wrote software and became an expert,” Caroline Steele said.

In fact, Dick Steele was so taken with computers that Virginia Steele initially limited his time on the machines. He couldn’t work on them until after lunch.

“One day he said to her, ‘I’m hungry. What time is lunch?’ She looked at the clock, and it was 10:30 a.m. After that she removed the restriction. He could work on them as much as he wanted,” Caroline Steele said.

He also got involved in the Upper Valley, serving as an early member, teacher and president of the Institute for Lifelong Education (ILEAD), on the board of Orange County Mental Health and working with the Clara Martin Center in Randolph.

He remained a life-long and steadfast Presbyterian, but he didn’t let that stand in the way of his being an active member of the small Episcopal congregation at the Christ Church in Bethel or stop him from serving at the diocesan level of Vermont’s Episcopal church, the Bethel church’s former priest the Rev. Jean Jersey said.

“He was an incredibly kind and patient teacher and was extremely helpful to me when I first got there,” Jersey said. “He had the kind of vision that he could see the consequences of something. If we took a certain action, he could envision what that would mean down the road. In a small church, that was very helpful and important.

“He was a deeply faithful person, but he was very quiet about it. His knowledge of the Bible was prodigious, and he didn’t beat you over the head with it. He was never critical, but you could tell if he didn’t like what you were going to do. He’d give you an incredulous sort of look. It was a look I’m sure his daughters got when they were growing up,” Jersey said.

In his retirement, Dick Steele also had a role in filmmaker John O’Brien’s movie A Man With a Plan.

“He was the moderator in League of the Chicken Pie Supper debate, and he was a perfect straight man for Fred Tuttle’s goofiness,” said O’Brien, who was a neighbor and family friend.

“He had a Southern charm, a certain grace about him. And he had the sort of life in Vermont that not many people have any more. He was the American success story: a well-educated man of a modest background who is successful in business and retires at 61 and was able to do a lot more with his life.”

Dick Steele didn’t care who you were. He would still treat you with respect, said Rocky Fuller, who got to know Steele while he was working for him as a carpenter more than 20 years ago and became close friends.

“When I first met him, I had hair down to my waist and really wasn’t in his field of vision, but he was interested in me, engaged me in conversation and treated me like he’d known me all his life,” Fuller said. “He didn’t have to do that, but that was just the way he was.”

With his strong southern background, Steele could have been stereotyped as a conservative, but he wasn’t like that either, Fuller said.

“He came from a different realm, but he embraced liberalism. He was anti-war, pro-choice, a women’s advocate and for gay rights. Coming from his background, you wouldn’t think that.”

“He was one of the smartest people that I have ever known, and he was sharp right to the end,” said Fuller, who saw Dick Steele during his last days.

Less than a month before his 90th birthday, Steele had a bad fall in his Tunbridge home where he insisted on living independently. He never recovered.

“He really bridged the gaps between people in our parish,” Jersey said. “He was able to get college professors working together with people who hadn’t finished high school. He made everyone feel comfortable.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.