JARS v64n3 - In Memoriam: Captain Richard Steele

In Memoriam: Captain Richard Steele
John Weagle

Captain Steele, as many simply knew him, was an internationally renowned and respected rhododendron breeder, teacher and plantsman. The proprietor of Bayport Plant Farm since 1973, he planted his beloved thirty-acre woodland with Rhododendrons, Magnolias and many rare plants. In the 1960's he was co-owner, along with Dr. David Fluharty, of the former York River Nursery, Belroi, Virginia until the early 1970's.

He regularly appeared on the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) Radio's "Morningside" talking about and promoting rhododendrons. He was the subject of several CBC TV Specials featuring his life and work with rhododendrons - "Land and Sea," "On the Road Again" as well as Vision TV's "Recreating Eden" in a programme on his horticultural life entitled "Planting Peace". The Japanese media produced a television special on his plantings on Hall's Road in Boulderwood, Halifax.

He generously donated specimen plants to the Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor's Garden (Halifax, NS), Boulderwood (Halifax, NS), Kentville Research Station (Kentville, NS), Pine Grove Park (Liverpool, NS), the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens (Annapolis Royal, NS), Oxen Pond Botanical Gardens (St. John's, NL) and the Norfolk Botanical Gardens (Norfolk, VA); his plants became the backbone of many of these gardens.

He was a founding member of the Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society, the Rhododendron Society of Canada, the Rhododendron and Native Plant Society and the Tidewater Chapter [no longer in existence] of the American Rhododendron Society. He was past President of the Rhododendron Society of Canada and Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society. He was the recipient of the Rhododendron Society of Canada's highest awards, the Hybridizer's Award and the Leslie Hancock Memorial Award (1983). In 1998 he received the American Rhododendron Society's Gold Medal - its highest award - for his international contributions to the Genus Rhododendron . He was a longtime member of The International Plant Propagator's Society, The Royal Horticultural Society, The Magnolia Society, The Alpine Garden Society and The Primula Society.

The annual Steele Lecture was established to recognize his many contributions to the Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society. In 2007 the Hall's Road Garden Society and the ARS Endowment Fund created the Dick Steele Garden in Boulderwood in his honour. In the coming year Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver, BC will feature a section of the garden devoted to the Steele hybrids.

A friend and mentor to both amateur and expert alike, his passion and boundless enthusiasm to the very end inspired thousands in Canada and the U.S.A. Wandering in his famous woodland and in the wilds of Labrador brought him immense joy. His belief was that the beauty and serenity of plants and gardens have the power to transform lives and bring peace and harmony to the world.

Dick was known to and admired by everyone. The great collections in England, the Tidewater area of Virginia and Nova Scotia were his haunts until he moved to Nova Scotia permanently in the early 1970's. His life was split between his distinguished naval career and his passion for rhododendrons, yet he managed to meld the two. He was always somewhere planting rhododendrons, from Norfolk to Halifax, Cornwallis to New Brunswick.

He always made sure his NATO meetings in Europe ended on a Friday so he could duck over to England for the weekend to view the rhododendrons and to collect cuttings and pollen. Windsor Great Park was unquestionably his favourite garden and it was there he met T. Hope Findlay, keeper of the rhododendron collection, who was to become both friend and mentor and for whom Dick had the deepest respect.

In the US he was a personal friend and expert on the work of his hero Joe Gable. His dynamic talk to the Potomac Valley Chapter on Gable's work led to the formation of the Gable Study Group and the publication of Hybrids & Hybridizer's , chronicling the work of east coast hybridizers. His good friends were fellow Gable admirers, Jane and Ray Goodrich, Velma and Russ Haag, George Ring and George Miller. One summer when Gable's rhododendrons were close to death from an extreme drought, Dick mustered water pumps and hose-lines from the Norfolk naval yards and trucked them to Gable's in Pennsylvania, arriving just as the rains started to fall. Lanny Pride was another close friend whose work on extra hardy rhododendrons he followed closely. I remember the day Lanny phoned to say he was terminally ill and was sending cuttings and the seeds of his last crosses to Dick. Dick was deeply touched.

In 1961, he was Base Commander of the Royal Canadian Naval Base Cornwallis, NS. Knowing he was in one of the milder areas of Nova Scotia, it was not long before sea cadets were being trained to plant rhododendrons, and soon the base was awash in them. Busloads of cadets were to travel even further afield to test their abilities. There were the rescue helicopter training exercises that Dick organized from his ship off the coast, and there were a goodly number of days of low-level flights scouring Halifax County woods to spot the long lost native Rhododendron maximum .

Despite the illustrious circles in which he traveled he was welcoming to one and all; he was as at ease staying at Buckingham Palace as at Cecil and Rita's modest B&B in L'Anse Amour in Labrador. At 93, he was still leading groups to the barrens of Western Newfoundland and Labrador in late summer; he was fascinated by the plants in the area and keen to test them.

Dignified yet modest, he had no superlatives for his own hybrids; instead he would take you to his woodland and let you be the judge. He was a listener. His humour and self-effacement were perfectly illustrated in a story told by his good friend David Veinotte at the Celebration of his Life. Not so long ago they were at an International Plant Propagator's meeting and were the last to get on a packed elevator. The elevator stopped at the next floor where a crowd was waiting, someone yelled "We love you Captain Steele". Everyone in the elevator looked at Dick as did those waiting to board, Dick turned to Dave and said "I love you too Captain Steele".

This remarkable man inspired countless people to plant plants and gardens, to look at plants critically and, most importantly, to enjoy their beauty. I visited him in the hospital a few days before he died. I had taken him a colour photo of R. huianum . "What a colour! Can you get me some pollen before Spring?" he beamed. He kept moving forward even to the end. Let's keep his dream and optimism alive. Dick passed away on March 14, 2010, at the age of 94.