Remembering the remarkable life of Roger Steele

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By Scott Graber
My friend, Roger Steele, died on Saturday, August 4. Death came suddenly as he was getting ready for bed. He was with his wife, Cheryl.
Who was Roger Steele?
Roger Steele came to Beaufort in 1974, freshly endowed with a Masters in Fine Arts from Texas Christian University. He brought a remarkable capacity to teach drawing, printmaking and sculpture. And for many years he transferred these skills to thousands of young people at Laurel Bay Schools and at USCB.

Roger Steele.

But who was this guy?
You can learn something about Roger from his lithographs. You can see the purple plains of Texas (where he spent much of his youth); and the golds and blacks and magentas that speak of his time in Japan. He loved the soft, healing force of rain and that was a theme running through his work. But you can’t see his generosity.
In the 1970s, our public schools were under-funded. The same might be said for Beaufort Memorial Hospital and a dozen other local organizations. Roger was not wealthy, but his work was acquired by museums and corporations throughout the United States. His lithographs were collected by private individuals and galleries from California to New York City.
Roger routinely, consistently, cheerfully made art and donated that art (for fundraisers) to almost every civic organization in the county. He made posters, hung banners and coined slogans for literacy programs, fundraising dances and any project that needed graphics. I don’t think he ever asked for a dollar. It did not cross his mind.
Roger liked objects. He was a tactile person who liked to touch things. He spent Saturday mornings searching antique stores for those objects. When he found something he liked, he usually repaired it. Then he polished the piece. Then, without fail, he gave it away.  One wanted to be near this generosity.
So it came to pass that every Friday afternoon Roger and Cheryl Steele would open up their home (and their well-stocked bar) to anyone who might need end-of-the-week counseling. This standing invitation put pilots, mayors, architects and visual artists in contact with one another. One might see Jimmy Thomas (an architect) discussing building mass with David Porter (a Special Forces veteran); or Dean Moss (former Water Authority Manager) discussing the Savannah River Plant with Bill Rauch (former Beaufort Mayor).
These Friday afternoons did not exclude children. They were operating at a somewhat lower, alcohol-free level, but they were always there. Sometimes Roger would stop and remove a piece of antique china, or a Japanese basket, from a child’s hand while he refilled a wine glass. Sometimes not.
Roger and Cheryl did not have children of their own. This is good because they adopted almost every child who wandered into their house.  I believe Will Moss (who is producing segments of the London Olympics for NBC), Libby Davis (who went to the Governor’s School of the Arts) and my own son (a cinematographer) were influenced by the visual cornucopia presented on those long-ago Friday afternoons.
Roger’s legacy is, of course, the Beaufort County children who learned about color, composition and texture at Laurel Bay, USCB and in his home on North Street. He will be missed by all of us. But he leaves something behind — something that is good, solid, substantial.

USCB gallery displays steele’s artwork: An exhibit of Roger Steele’s “Valentines” will be shown in the USCB Gallery at the Performing Arts Center, USCB, Carteret Street, between August 11 and September 7, open 10 a.m. -5 p.m., Monday through Friday.  This is a collection of 28 years of valentines sent to his many friends.  An art scholarship has also been established in Roger Steele’s name.  Donations may be made to University of South Carolina, designating the Roger L Steele Scholarship Fund, and mailed to the USCB Development Office, One University Blvd, Bluffton, SC, 29909.