By Ellen Simmons
Living to be almost 99 years of age is a remarkable feat in itself, but when Benjamin (Ben) Charles Steele died September 25, 2016, the Billings, Montana “Gazette" called him, “a state treasure."
A survivor of the Bataan Death March in World War II, Steele was also a well-known artist and an educator, and he forged links to New London that live on today.
Born November 17, 1917 in Roundup, Montana, Steele was raised on the family ranch riding horses and roping cattle in the Bull Mountains, experiences that influenced his art throughout his life.
The family lost the ranch during the Depression and moved to Billings in 1932. Steele dropped out of Billings Senior High School for two years to work to help support his family, but he graduated in 1939. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was assigned to the 7th Materiel Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group.
He was sent to Clark Field, Philippines in 1941, and the Japanese invasion began soon after. Steele fought, was captured and made the Bataan Death March, which he survived when many others did not. A Japanese prisoner of war for three and a half years, he lived through experiences most can only imagine. During this time his art gave him an outlet that probably helped save his life.
After the war he spent a year at Baxter General Hospital in Spokane, Washington and then moved back to Montana. During the war Steele became friends with Father John Duffy, a Catholic priest who was able to hide some of Steele’s drawings from the Japanese. They kept in touch and after Steele married Roberta Mellis in 1946, the couple moved to New London on the advice of Duffy, who was now the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in the village.
Steele enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Art and graduated in 1950. He then began taking education classes at Kent State University and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1951. During this time his marriage broke up, and his wife returned to Montana, but Steele stayed on teaching art and coaching basketball in the New London Schools during the 1951-52 school year.
Steele rented a room from Winona Bursley on East Main St. and through her became acquainted with her niece, Shirley Anne Emerson, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan who had studied journalism and art. She was working in the accounting department of a local factory and writing freelance articles for the “Cleveland Plain Dealer" when they met.
Many of the people who knew Ben and Shirley at that time are now gone, of course, but Ruth (Hartford) Ritchey, who now lives in Maryland, was a first-year English teacher the same year Steele taught art. She says she didn’t know Steele well, but she remembers him as “a very quiet and very confident person." She was better acquainted with Shirley through her friend Hope Guthrie Meyer. (Meyer’s father owned the Karolyn Theatre on West Main St.) Ritchey said when Shirley and Ben started dating, no one thought much about it because it seemed to be a very natural thing and they just belonged together.
Harold Erlenbach knew both the Steeles, Shirley better than Ben, but he remembers well an incident that took place in November of 1951. A senior at Oberlin College, Erlenbach was home for Thanksgiving break, but he had to go back for basketball practice on Friday.
He did not own his own car and would have borrowed his dad’s, but his brother and Steele had used it to travel to a Notre Dame football game in South Bend. Steele generously loaned Erlenbach his own car, a 1936 Ford. The speedometer did not work, so Erlenbach was traveling slowly when a woman came out of a side street without stopping. He slammed on the brakes, but he couldn’t avoid hitting her and his car ended up in someone’s front yard.
The woman, who happened to be a judge, whose name Erlenbach remembers as Lillian Westrop, was accompanied by two other women, both attorneys. She accused Erlenbach of speeding and he, “being a dumb college kid," (Erlenbach’s words) had no idea what to do. The women took him back to his dorm and he called his parents who picked him up and arranged to have the car taken care of. They also took him to Elyria to the Highway Patrol to report the accident, which apparently the judge had already done.
Steele had no insurance, but Erlenbach’s father was kind enough to pay for the damage to both cars, and Erlenbach says, “That’s the last we heard from the judge." Apparently Steele took the whole thing in stride, because Erlenbach does not remember getting any grief from him either. He concludes the story by laughing and saying, “As far as I know there weren’t any problems from the whole thing."
That car must have been followed by a 1951 Ford Victoria because neighbor Doug Fetterman, who was around 12 or 13 at the time, remembers Steele washing it in his Aunt Nonie’s yard where he rented a room. Winona Bursley (Aunt Nonie) was Doug and his sister Lois’ aunt, and she lived just up the street from them.
Fetterman remembers Steele as “a real good man" who showed them some of the pictures he made during the war." He gave Fetterman a silver belt buckle with a horse on it, but unfortunately, it has been lost over the years.
Dean Hanson, who now lives in Norwalk, knew Steele as a teacher and later as a friend. He says Steele, “got me interested in art." He describes him as “quite a guy and an incredible painter. I admired him very much." He continues, He was outgoing and friendly but was reluctant to talk about the war until he got to know you." Steele later shared some of his war pictures with Hanson, as he did with Fetterman.
The Steeles were married in 1952, when they moved to Denver so he could work on his master’s degree, which he received from Denver University in 1955.
He served as Crafts Director for Special Services for the Army at several locations from 1953 to 1959, when he returned to Montana and joined the faculty at Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University, Billings), where he chaired the art department and taught art classes. He retired as Professor of Art Emeritus in 1982.
During his career, Steele gave workshops, demonstrations, lectures, talks for museums, schools and civic groups and also served as a judge at countless art shows. He also exhibited in shows throughout the country and illustrated several documentaries and over 20 books.
One of these books is “Tears in the Darkness—The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath" by Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman. It is a narrative of Steele’s life, as well as a horrific chapter in history. (It is available at the New London Public Library, as well as on line.)
Steele was named Outstanding Employee by the Army in 1958 and Teacher of the Year, Montana Education Association in 1964. He received a Teaching Award in 1977 and a Distinguished Professor Award in 1980 at Eastern Montana College. In 1992 he and his wife were presented with the Montana Governor’s Award for Art.
Besides his art, his interests included hunting and fishing, and in later years he especially enjoyed fly fishing in Montana rivers. Besides his wife, at the time of his death he had two daughters, Rosemarie Steele and Julie Jorgenson, a son, Sean Emerson Steele, six grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.
The Steeles maintained their ties to New London throughout the years, becoming members of the New London Area Historical Society and periodically visiting friends and relatives.
In March of 2016 just a few months before Steele passed away, he and Shirley attended the groundbreaking for the Ben Steele Middle School in Billings. Shirley says he was “thrilled" when this happened. She adds that although he had received many awards and tributes throughout his life, “He considered this the biggest honor he ever received."
At the groundbreaking, one of the officials called Steele, “a true Montanan, in heart and in spirit." The speaker could have added that although he lived in New London for only a short time, Steele had an impact on that the community too and is remembered by many people whom he touched in some way.
(I was privileged to meet the Steeles several years ago when they were visiting family and friends in the area and staying with Shirley and Carl Cawrse. I knew very little about Steele, and he and his wife were both very gracious and generous in sharing information about their lives. In researching this article, I talked to Shirley several times on the phone and found her to be an invaluable resource. She is now 91 and lives in Billings. If anyone wants to contact her, she gave me permission to share her address, which is 2425 Cascade Ave., Billings MT 59102.)
One of Steele’s works hangs in the meeting room of the library. (Record Photo – Ellen Simmons)
Ben Steele obituary photo. (Submitted Photo)