19 August 1998

Introduction to My Father's Memorial Service

Introduction to this printed edition of the Service

The many interpretations of my father’s legacy that follow do much to support his creed regarding perception process. That we each got something different from our experience with him is a testament to the scope of his being. What we each got in common was the essence of his spirit.
As I consider the life of my father, and his role in the family, I find myself pondering the true nature of “home”. Was it a place and a particular set of people, or was it simply a feeling of peace within ourselves? While certain others may have accompanied the feeling, did we not each create our own experience of “home?” Can “home” be as much on the way somewhere as it is a specific place – someplace you didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy, but where you happened to be when you experienced this peace within?. . . perhaps in the beautifully manicured garden, but just as likely in the dump you had to pass through on route to it.
In this respect, my father seemed to carry his “home” with him and perhaps this is why people readily felt “at home” in his presence. He did this so well that one could easily forget that he probably felt isolated much of the time. The man who could talk to anybody about anything – bringing bemused smiles and fresh insight – often opted for solitude. The man who showed much generosity and offered pivotal encouragement to others, could be quite ungenerous and critical with respect to himself.
His childhood probably required both that he depend heavily upon himself and that he be able to charm strangers. His experience growing up also made it difficult for him to admit to relying upon anyone. Given all this, however, he showed remarkable flexibility and willingness to evolve.
The Service gave some 35 people the opportunity to reflect, laugh and cry about their experience with Robert Steele. It was a hot and humid afternoon, but trees provided adequate shade. All of the requests that he had outlined in his “In case of death” file folder were honored: my mother and I both played our instruments and the two Richard Wilbur poems were read. My brother and Ellen Levy (one of my father’s absolute favorite students) offered cogent analysis before their readings. Some may remember it, in a way, as Mr. Steele’s Last Class. The one thing we did not provide that Dad would have liked is printed copies of the poems for listeners to study. This booklet remedies that lack – providing not only the poems, but pretty much every word spoken at the Service (and then some). It is offered not only to console those who loved Robert Steele, but to provide perspective for anyone wondering about the impact their lives have on others, or anyone questioning the eternity of their own spirit.
One other related note: While I met Richard Wilbur on two occasions, my father never did. I approached the poet, following a reading he gave in the summer of 1974 in Cummington (where I worked at a nearby camp), and told him of my father’s interest. Wilbur offered his phone number. When Dad next visited, I dialed the number and handed him the receiver, thinking that he would suggest a meeting over coffee with his favorite living poet. Instead my father, as ever, did not want to intrude – saying something to Wilbur about it being best that we not meet our idols. I was disappointed, thinking, “There he goes again, feeling unworthy.” Or was I anxious for the meeting to take place more for my sake than for Dad’s? Perhaps, in spite of self-worth issues, my father was making a valid point. The second time I approached Wilbur was exactly twenty years later after a concert in Charlemont (which I reviewed) of his works set to music. He said he remembered me from before – and I believe that he meant it.

– Jeffry Hamilton Steele, 19 August 1998

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