For nearly a century, Montana has been blessed to know the personal courage and artistic talent of Ben Steele.
Today, on his 93rd birthday, he will be honored for his life contributions to his home state. Steele, a Roundup native, survived the infamous Bataan Death March in World War II and four subsequent years in Japanese prisoner camps. After the war, he earned degrees at the Cleveland Institute of Art and University of Denver. He returned to Montana and a distinguished career as a professional artist and professor of art at what is now Montana State University Billings.
Earlier this year, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana acquired 11 paintings and 78 drawings from Steele. This artwork depicts his war experiences.
The oil paintings are on exhibit now at the UM museum in Missoula.
The Western Heritage Center in Billings has an exhibit of Steele's drawings up now through Dec. 31. And in Colstrip, the Schoolhouse History and Art Center is exhibiting Steele's work.
The statewide exhibitions honor this remarkable Montanan.
His war years were featured in 2009 bestseller, “Tears in Darkness,” by Michael and Elizabeth Norton, which recounts the Bataan Death March from Steele's perspective. The authors, who interviewed Steele for a decade, decided to focus on him because of his extraordinary ability to overcome hatred of his Japanese captors.
In an interview last year with The Gazette, Steele said he was able to endure the deprivations and suffering that killed many U.S. POWs because he'd grown up working hard on Eastern Montana ranches.
“It helped me survive, being a cowboy,” he said.
Over the years, Steele helped organize gatherings of Bataan Death March survivors in Montana. He produced the only complete pictorial representation of that agonizing World War II episode.
Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and a Montana National Guard honor guard are scheduled to be on hand to celebrate Steele's life and work today at noon at the Western Heritage Center. The entire community is invited.
Steele's legacy was summed up well in a letter to the editor printed in The Gazette a few years ago:
“In the 1960s, when I was a student at Eastern Montana College (as MSUB was called then), I was blessed to be in an art class taught by Ben Steele,” a Plentywood woman wrote.
“I had many teachers on the road to my degree, but only a handful remain in my memory. Steele is one of those. In my mind, he will always be 'Gentle Ben.' He exhibited a great love of art as well as a great art talent. His classes were calming yet inspiring, and he shared his passion for art with us all.
“It was all the more impressive to be taught by a man who survived the Bataan Death March and endured years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.”
Impressive, indeed. Montana is richer for having Ben Steele as U.S. veteran, teacher, artist and inspiration.