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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Robert and Mary Steele - Part One

(This chapter has been divided into two parts due to its length - Editor)

Part One

      THE student father and the student daughter!  How naturally they belong together thus in the minds of all who remember them! Robert Steele had other daughters; gentle, attractive women, and it argues no whit against his parenthood that the eldest alone should share such mental association with him.  For the two were, intellectually, peculiarly sympathetic, and it must be from the intellectual side that they are here treated.
      I well remember the first time I ever saw Mary Steele.  It was so late in her life and so late in mine that it gives cause for astonishment; because we had been born and brought up within three Dayton blocks of each other.  This beginning, late as it was, was of a friendship that lasted until the end. She had published a paper in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Learned Lady of Gournay," and I was immensely proud that a Dayton woman should have done that. So I went to call upon her. It was in the large square house on the corner of Ludlow and First (Now owned by J. H. Patterson).  When the tall, pale figure came into the darkened room I was overcome with confusion to think I had taken the liberty of presuming that she would care for my caring for her work. But the visit, I discovered, had a zest for her as well as for me. Invalidism had made her a recluse, and so slight a touch with outside things as the simple call of an admiring friend was a pleasure to her. We so quickly reached common ground on books, people, study, and public interest that in half an hour we had known each other all our lives.  I came away at last for the only reason why Mary Steele's friends ever left her, because of the strain upon her slight strength of any mental excitement.  In the meantime she had told me with naive delight of her father's surprise and pleasure at her appearance in the Atlantic Monthly; how she had longed to submit the manuscript to his criticism, but preferred to wait and let him be astonished all at once; how she had watched him cut the pages and slowly look from them to her with the illumination of love and pride in his eyes.

      Personal achievement based upon love is the greatest thing in the human part of our world.  It is good and happy when it comes to strong and able people; but it is happier and better to the weak and helpless. To Mary Steele, accustomed since her childhood to bearing the prohibitions imposed by a weak back, unsound lungs, and a broken nervous system, achievement was like a draught of elixir.  It must have been the same to her father; for he had been teacher as well as parent, and together they had traversed all the paths of letters and art.  Often she was his secretary and amanuensis, laboring at research work when she ought to have been in bed; copying memoranda for the pure pleasure of it; for Robert Steele was preeminently a student.

      As a student, Dayton is chiefly indebted to him. For years he was the mainspring of things educational in our city.  To perhaps no other single individual influence do we owe such sustained and intelligent effort on behalf of the public schools and the Public Library.  For half a century he was closely identified with every public movement that tended, either directly or indirectly, to elevate Dayton.

      He was a graduate of Miami University, but his graduation was not the end, but the beginning of his scholarship.  His familiarity with the learning of the past was not a dry-as-dust deposit of erudition, but a source of active influence in present conditions.  Because he had read Berkley and Hegel and La Conte he did not despise  the unbaked philosophical arguments of the boys in the Philomathean Society; it was really the reason why he liked to go and listen to them. When he used to come, stepping slowly (for he was not strong; none of the  Steeles were), into our class in "Evidences" at the Seminary, or later, to the class in moral philosophy at the High School, I used to wonder what he thought of us.  I know now. And I know how little reason there was, despite the intellectual leagues between our mental processes and his, for our qualms of terror at the thought of being called upon to recite.  For it was not the "man learned" that interested him, but the "child learning."  He enjoyed the inexperienced groping after truth, the awakening of young minds to the golden treasures of thought and study. He spent hours with Miss Haight's classes at the Seminary or with Mr. Smith's classes at the High School, and thus it was that his signature upon one's diploma meant not only the official dignity of the president of the Board of Education, but the friendly and intimate knowledge of that pupil's proficiency in school.  Robert Steele not only paid taxes to support the schools, not only voted at the primaries and the polls; he not only served thirty years as member of the School Board .and twelve years as its President, but he spent hours and days and weeks hearing algebra and Latin recitations, attending school exercises and suffering under sophomoric oratory. This is why it is called "Steele" High School. Let it never be forgotten.

      The same painstaking, personal efforts that Robert Steele gave to the schools he gave to Woodland Cemetery. To him and to Benjamin Van Cleve we owe that garden hill-top, the resting-place of our dear dead.  For thirty-three years he was president of the association, giving it his loving, constant attention. The white stone gateway which for years adorned the upper entrance to the cemetery, and which has now been removed to the lower, was due to his initiative and supervision.  Neither was his influence that of the merely official, in this capacity.  He spent many hours in all the pleasant months wandering about among the graves and pathways, thinking what might be done to make the lovely spot still more lovely.  I wonder how many there are who walk in Woodland Cemetery now to find Robert Steele's grave, and to send him a tribute of thanks!

      What has been said of his touch with the schools and the cemetery could be repeated about all other interests which he espoused; the Third Street Presbyterian Church, of which he was trustee and elder for a lifetime; of the Public Library Board, director from 1842 until 1875; the directorship of Cooper Seminary; of the Dayton Horticultural Society; the State Board of Agriculture; and the Sanitary War Commission.  He was a member of the Citizen's Committee appointed by the Governor to assist in raising the 93rd Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry; a trustee of Montgomery County Children's Home; trustee and then president of the Young Men's Christian Association; member of State Board of Charities and Correction.  But this is not a biography; it is an appreciation; in that case, therefore, it is suitable that others, having spoken of Robert Steele, should be called upon to aid in preserving his memory.

      Professor Venable, in his volume entitled, "The Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley," says:

"Among the great and enthusiastic workers in the field of Ohio history and literature no one is more deserving of mention and gratitude than Robert W. Steele, of Dayton, who is doing for his city what Colonel R. T. Durrett has done for Louisville, Kentucky, in the way of founding institutions and preserving records of intellectual history."


      This refers to Mr. Steele's "History of Dayton," published in 1889, a labor of love in which he was greatly assisted by Mary Steele. To the passion of this father and daughter for local history we owe the best and almost the only permanent and reliable record of the early history of Dayton.


      George W. Houk wrote:


"Mr. Steele's life was not marked by any especial achievement of what the world usually

denominates 'success.’  He never attained, nor did he ever seek any political or professional distinction. He rather shrank from than coveted personal notoriety.  He never accepted any official position in which all personal considerations to himself were not merged in a sense of duty, and the opportunity to be useful to others--and yet who will say that his life, earnest, pure, useful, and blameless as it was, shedding its benign influence upon every public enterprise that tended to promote the improvement of the taste, the intellect, and the morals of the community with which he was identified, was not after all the achievement of the highest and worthiest ends to which human life can aspire?  He was, all his life, a simple, refined, intelligent, private American citizen--always actuated by an enlightened and truly patriotic sense of duty, seeking to benefit others rather than himself.

"His own personal pleasures were found in the circle of domestic life and congenial friendly

associates.  No one who deserved assistance ever appealed to his sympathies in vain.  No worthy object was ever brought to his notice that did not receive his aid.  He lived in a serene intellectual atmosphere, made ever radiant with the best and purest thoughts, and the choicest knowledge of all ages.  The truths of science were as familiar and clear to his intellect as were those of religion to his enlightened spirit.  His mind was capacious, philanthropic, and liberal, his mental resources ever fresh and varied, and no one among us was so constantly or so completely abreast with all the best current literature of the time."


      The Woman's Literary Club placed upon record this tribute:


"Both directly and indirectly our debt to him cannot be overestimated.  His influence in the

Library Board helped to place upon the shelves many a book necessary to our work which otherwise would have been beyond our reach.  By quiet advice from the storehouse of his mind he filled many a gap left by our inexperience and shared his wonderful familiarity with books simply and generously wherever it was needed.  Always to be found in the library, he was never too busy nor too hurried to stop and talk "books" with any one in difficulties, and we, as a club of women, knew how to value the touch of a mind like his upon our interests. Nowhere was his sincere nature more apparent than in his dealings with women.  To them he was courteous, just, candid, helpful, and generous.  Mr. Steele paid us the rare and grateful compliment of taking us seriously. He treated our efforts as though they were at least as earnest if not as wide and important as those of men.  Sometimes he might have smiled at our mistakes and inexperience, but never did; he helped where he could help and commanded where he could command, and we wish there were more like him."


      Leonard Moore wrote in the Journal:


     "Ten years ago, over his familiar initials, he wrote for the Journal an obituary notice of a personal friend.  Its opening sentence was this : 'Men of thoroughness, of inflexible integrity, of transparent purity of character, are not so common in this world that their death may be permitted to pass without more than ordinary commemoration.'  The light of Mr. Steele's own life was reflected in that paragraph.  With him the mind, the character, was the measure of the man. How appropriate is the quotation in waiting of him today!  Born to a competency and spared the necessity of business cares, he well knew that 'a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,' but in a wise use of his powers, a generous association of his interest with those of his fellow men, a recognition of the claims of society upon him as a citizen, and an abiding purpose to make the discharge of today's duties his preparation for tomorrow."


      F. C. wrote in the Herald:


"We are taught too much to look upon a life of activity, a career of money-getting, as the

all-important thing. We are prone to attach value only to the successful results of business or professional exertion, forgetting that out of a life spent in attaining such success are crowded that broadness of view, that wisdom of conduct, that capacity for great good to others, which come from the love of the best books and constant, close acquaintance with them.  How many of the minds of those men we call successful are starved and dwarfed because their masters are too busy to feed them ?  How many successful men miss all the good that lies between the covers of the books that hold the stored knowledge of ages, getting never a glimpse of the treasured thoughts that are hidden on their library shelves?


"It is good to be able to look upon the life of a man who, while not withdrawn from his neighbors, while in full sympathy and ready touch with their interest and pursuits, yet found his chief delight among his books; who read not only the words of writers dead and gone, but kept abreast of the best modern thought and thinkers; and who used his knowledge, not selfishly, not for his own gratification, but applied it wisely and practically for the benefit of his fellow-men. Hundreds, even thousands, of the men and women of Dayton, both those in middle life and those whose memory of their schooldays is yet young, owe to the quiet, wise, intelligent influence of Robert W. Steele more than they may know and comprehend, more than can easily be expressed in words."


      Miss Doren, then Librarian, wrote:


"No earnest cause but called forth his warm sympathy and hearty co-operation, for he was not careless of feeble beginnings, and wrote and spoke much in their behalf. It is the testimony of the men now engaged in the various State and local charitable and educational institutions in which he was for so many years a leading spirit, that many of their best features today are traceable to his wisdom and forethought during their formative period. He not only planned and personally carried into execution the greater part of the work attendant upon all beginnings, but what was equally important throughout his life, fostered and inspired the public spirit which was to perpetuate them.  This was a service inestimable, and one which no single act of munificence could equal.

*    *    *

"It is rare that a city owes to any one man so much of its intellectual, social, and moral 

development and material prosperity, as Dayton does to him. But for his energy in overcoming a strong local opposition to the introduction of railroads in early times, it might have been a dwarfish town.  It is now a city of 100,000 inhabitants, a center for railroads and large manufacturing interests.  In addition to its location in one of the loveliest and most fertile regions of Ohio, its chief distinction lies in the fact of the large proportion of people, particularly those of limited means, who own their homes. One of the most prosperously settled of these districts of the city was once a large farm of some hundred acres belonging to Mr. Steele.  It was an opportunity for amassing great wealth, but he preferred to lay it out in ample lots, and sold them on liberal terms to the small wage-earners.  Although selling at almost a nominal sum, in many cases he waited fifteen and even twenty years for payment to be completed, the property having in the meantime trebled and quadrupled in value.  His faith was often greater than that of the buyers, and when discouragement overtook them, he would throw off some of the interest, cheer them up, and urge them to hold on a little longer; he would wait for them. Thus many a disheartened worker secured a comfortable home, and it was in this way that thrift was encouraged and much of the solid prosperity of the town came about.


"We can see him as he used to sit and talk of literature, of theology, or of good men and the ideals which inspired them or of work for his beloved city, then, closing his fingers in upon his palm with intensity, his face aglow with strong feeling, he would say, 'After all, the thing is to do it!'


"Again, speaking of those who engaged in philanthropic anthropic work, he said: 'A man who would work effectively, must work quietly, or he runs the risk of losing the chance to work at all.' Perhaps one of the secrets of his own success in carrying through all that he undertook to do, was because of the utter lack of self-seeking on his part.  The work itself was always paramount in his mind, and thus he kept the way clear of enmities and petty jealousies.  When applied to for the history of local institutions, as he often was because of his long and intimate connection with them, while eager to give an account of his co-laborers, he uniformly refused to allow mention of himself, saying that the important thing was in having work done, no matter about the credit of it."


      On an evening in the early fall Mr. Steele was driving up to his own gate on First Street.  It was the last time he ever drove out; ever saw Dayton.   As he gazed about our streets and saw the trees and the river, the everlasting hills surrounding them; saw the evidences of God's  goodness and man's industry, he said: "Dayton is beautiful; yes, Dayton is beautiful; and it is growing more so.”  Then slowly and with a tender inflection, "I almost wish to stay--to see it."

      If any of our saints or prophets should make request to come back and look upon the growth of the city they had worked for, would any, do you think, have a surer right than Robert Steele?

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