A crowd so large it spilled out onto the steps of the Western Heritage Center came to wish Ben Steele happy birthday Wednesday.
It was also a chance to thank Steele for the sacrifices he made for his country as a survivor of the Bataan Death March during World War II and to recognize the positive impact he's had on hundreds of lives. A well-respected watercolorist, Steele taught art at Montana State University Billings for several decades.
On Wednesday he recalled sitting at Will James' feet and watching the famous cowboy artist draw when Steele was a boy. Steele later tapped into those drawing sessions to help him depict the horror of the Bataan Death March and his life as a prisoner of war.
"Drawing helped save my life,'' Steele said. "If you took art away from me, I'd be lost.''
Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger praised Steele, who turned 93 on Wednesday, as an "extraordinary Montanan.''
"The thing that touches my heart is to see so many friends here to honor Ben. He has made a mark on all our lives. What is so extraordinary about Ben is to have lived through this tortuous time and not have a bitter heart.''
Later, Billings Mayor Tom Hanel called for Bohlinger to lead the crowd in a round of "Happy Birthday.'' Steele, sitting next to his wife, Shirley, beamed throughout the chorus and then waved to the crowd of more than 300 people.
The place was packed with teachers and retired teachers, including retired MSU Billings art professor John Pollock and current English professor Sue Hart.
"He's the most amazing man I've ever known,'' Hart said. "My kids and grandkids adore him. He's just so special to all of us.''
Pollock, who studied art under Steele and then served as a colleague with Steele in the art department for more than a decade, called Steele a positive force.
"It wasn't just his ability as an artist, but his passion as a person,'' Pollock said.
Many other former students of Steele's came to celebrate with him, including Karen Moses.
"He would do an egg demonstration to show us how to use negative space. With one brush stroke, he would paint a fried egg. Of course, then we would all go back and try to make it work and it didn't work out quite like his.''
Harry Koyama, who is of Japanese heritage, studied under Steele in the 1960s. Koyama came to honor Steele as an inspiration. Unknown to Koyama at the time, Steele said he learned by teaching Koyama how to overcome his bitterness toward his Japanese captors during World War II. The experience for Steele was so healing that he included it in his story, which is told in the book "Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath'' by Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman.
Koyama said he is proud to have played a role in Steele's incredible life.
"It was kind of amazing when I heard I was in the book. You get it in the context of reading Ben's story that I had an effect on who Ben is today. To know that is just indescribable. To think that anyone could live through what he did and still be one of the best human beings on the planet is just incredible," Koyama said.
Julie Dial, of the Western Heritage Center, organized the statewide Ben Steele Day when she discovered in the past few weeks that Steele's birthday was Wednesday and he was already scheduled to speak there. When Steele turned 60, former Montana Gov. Tom Judge declared a Ben Steele Day.
As part of the party Wednesday in Billings, Barbara Koostra, director of the Montana Museum of Arts and Culture, invited Steele's friends and fans to visit the upcoming exhibit of the 82 drawings and 11 paintings that Steele recently donated to the Missoula museum.
"We are so grateful Ben's art is staying in Montana,'' Koostra said.
A display of reproductions of Steele's drawings is on display in the basement of the Western Heritage Center through Dec. 20, and the Schoolhouse History and Art Center of Colstrip has an exhibit of Steele's work.