Nearly 1,000 people filled the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark on Tuesday to honor the late Ben Steele, a man who never wanted to be called a hero.
Yet Steele’s community of admirers, friends and family, who came from across Montana and beyond, took part in a hero’s sendoff for Steele with a rifle salute and a flag presentation to Steele’s widow, Shirley. Steele, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a long-time art professor at Eastern Montana College and Montana State University Billings, died last month at 98.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel has declared Steele’s birthday, Nov. 17, Ben Steele Day.
“To each of us, Ben was a treasure,” Hanel said. “He was one of a kind, a genuine man.”
The two-hour service featured cowboy sing-alongs, including one of Steele's favorites, “Don’t Fence Me In,” and inspiring speeches about how Steele taught the world humanity through his art.
Elizabeth and Michael Norman, the authors of “Tears in the Darkness,” which told Steele’s story, were featured speakers. Michael Norman spoke of Steele’s sense of humor.
“He told me once, ‘I like to draw sketches of myself. That way, I can give myself hair.’”
Elizabeth Norman spoke of Steele’s courage and optimism.
“He was tough, he was smart tough, he was Montana tough,” she said.
When Elizabeth spoke of Steele’s ability to forgive the trauma he endured at the hands of his Japanese captors during World War II, she introduced one of Steele’s students, Harry Koyama, who was seated in the back of the room. Through Steele’s relationship with Koyama, who is of Japanese heritage, Steele was able to lose his resentment over the brutality endured on the Bataan Death March and as a POW for three years.
Elizabeth said the memory of Montana and of home carried Steele through those tortuous years.
“A man carries home in his heart,’ she said.
Steele graduated from Senior High School in 1939 after dropping out for two years to support his family. He worked for the Snook Art Co. while he was in high school and met cowboy artist Will James.
Steele was working on the Carroll Clark ranch at Pompey’s Pillar when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, and in October, he arrived at Clark Field in the Philippine Islands, just months before the battle of Bataan.
Clyde Aspevig, a former student of Steele’s and now a well-established artist, noted that Steele’s “steady and calm” teaching style helped him through a rough time in 1969 when Aspevig started school at EMC.
Steele began his teaching career at EMC in 1959, heading the art department and teaching life drawing and water color painting until 1982 when he became professor of art emeritus.
Aspevig said a painting Steele gave him of a white-tailed deer leaping in play symbolizes Steele’s ability to leap over adversities in life and remain cheerful and positive.
“Ben was full of kindness, courage and humility,” Aspevig said. “We all need to be set free from this bondage of fear and hate.”
Illinois filmmaker Jan Thompson spoke of an interview with Steele for her upcoming documentary “Survival Through Art.”
“I asked Ben how he would like to be remembered. He said, ‘I just want to be remembered as a good guy, one who tried to interpret the war so people could understand.’”
Thompson is flying to New York next week to finish the narration with actor Alec Baldwin, who is donating his time on the film. Plans are to show it sometime later this year.
Steele's grandson Jeremy Jorgenson said his grandfather taught him how special fly fishing on the Big Horn River is and to be grateful for the simple things in life, like a cold glass of water.
"Because he knew hungry and thirsty," Jorgenson said.