JARS v64n3 - In Memoriam: Bill Steele

In Memoriam: Bill Steele
Joan Warren

A long-time member of the Valley Forge Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, Bill Steele has died at the age of 81. Bill had valiantly fought cancer for over ten years. While members of the chapter, Bill and his wife, Mich (Ellen), were very active in the chapter's annual plant sales, the azalea study committee (of which he was the leader) along with Lloyd Partain, Clarence Rahn, Jim Gears and others, and in the propagation and distribution of evergreen azaleas. Bill became a known expert in azaleas, probably the most knowledgeable person north of the Mason-Dixon line. Bill never missed an opportunity to remind us that when we spoke of rhododendrons we were also speaking about azaleas, especially evergreen azaleas. He presented programs about the propagation and growing of azaleas to the chapter and to other groups, organized bus trips to visit rhododendron gardens and served on the board of directors.

Following retirement from a teaching career in 1991, he and Mich founded Steele's nursery on the grounds of their home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Their cellar contained hundreds of cuttings under lights, and their back yard was alive with recently rooted azalea cuttings, mulch piles, a Nearing frame, in-ground hot houses, lath fences, hundreds and hundreds of potted plants and mature specimens planted out in their yard. They also grew lepidote rhododendrons and some native plants.

Each year the Steeles held a plant sale over a weekend at their nursery. People came from all over the Middle-Atlantic states to buy plants and to seek Bill's advice. In addition to the nursery and chapter activities, Bill discovered yellow spots on azalea leaves caused by a soft-bodied scale, and worked with entomologists at Penn State University and Cornell University toward understanding and eradicating the condition.

The Steeles were recognized for their contributions to the Chapter and awarded the Valley Forge ARS Bronze Medal. In addition, in 2000 the Brookside Gardens Chapter of the Azalea Society of America located in Wheaton, MD, gave Bill the Frederic P. Lee Commendation. When the Steeles gave up their nursery project, they dedicated about 190 cultivars of the Holly Springs azaleas, a group of over 450 azaleas hybridized by Pete Vines, to Jenkins Arboretum in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

Bill and Mich were avid skiers. To celebrate his 80th birthday, Bill skied 80 days that year. Bill will always be remembered for his outgoing nature, his sense of humor, his generosity and his readiness to always participate in chapter activities.