We heard the awful news last week when the president of Hiram College sent an email announcing the death, last Monday, of Dorothy Munson Steele.
She was Dorothy Munson when I met her at Hiram College in the early 1960s. She was a year behind me in school, but we had a common history--the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): Both her father and mine were ordained Disciples ministers--and the Disciples had founded Hiram College, where my father was teaching. We had stories to share ...
I knew, too, that she was a music major. But I didn't know a lot more, not at first.
She soon began dating Claude Steele, my good friend, and they formed (I think) the first openly interracial couple at Hiram in my day. It did not, believe me, always go smoothly for them. They were devoted to each other (and would remain so in the decades leading to her death), but there were those (on-campus and off-) who were not so sure this was a good thing.
They were right. It wasn't a good thing. It was a great thing. For them, for me, for everyone who loved them--and there were many. There remain many.
They both went on to earn Ph.D.s and to teach at some of the country's most prestigious universities--the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley. (Not bad!) Dorothy specialized in early childhood education and was a fierce advocate for the young throughout her long, blessed career.
When I was working on my various Jack London projects in California in the 1990s, I stayed with them a few times in Stanford, where they opened their home to me--opened their hearts to me.
This is a cliche, I know, but ours was the sort of friendship that is like a song. Sometimes we put it on Pause because we were not near one other, but when we met again, we hit Play once again. I was certain that song would never end.
Claude was in our wedding party (December 20, 1969), and Joyce and Dorothy became instant friends.
I saw the Steeles off and on for decades. Wrote letters now and then. Email. Facebook. (Though Claude was not a fan of any of such electronic things.) Spoke on the phone now and then.
And what I remember about Dorothy? Her fierce intelligence--her loyalty to her friends--her devotion to her two children--her unrelenting advocacy for young children in school--her bright, piercing eyes--her sense of humor--the music of her laughter--the vast dimensions of her love for Claude--
What a laugh she had! Explosive--authentic--vibrant with her love of life. And, oh, is the music of the world poorer today without that sound!
The picture at the top of the page is at Hiram College, two years ago. Dorothy was a Trustee, was in town for meetings. Gave me a call. I drove over, met her in the coffee shop, hit Play once again. I did not allow myself to think that I might not ever see her again. Here's some of what i wrote in my journal that day--April 24, 2015:
… had a great talk with her in the Bistro, learning about her chemo (oral) for her liver; she learned about my prostate cancer and so on; talked about Claude, who’s now Provost at Berkeley; a few more years before they’ll retire; she gave me an autographed teaching book she’d co-authored with someone; talked about Joyce and John Brown and our kids and grandkids—maybe get son Steve in touch with Claude, who’s writing about charter schools; Paul Gaffney (Eng Dept colleague of Joyce’s) took an iPhone photo of Dorothy and me—and we talked about Shakespeare, etc.; she had to go to luncheon at 11:30; home I went ...
I have a much older picture of us all in college. I know the exact day, too. November 11, 1965. My 21st birthday. I was working in the office of Hiram's Student Senate that evening, and here came my friends--Dorothy and Claude among them--with a cake and surprise. In the photo below I'm the pretentious young twit holding a pipe. Claude is to my immediate left. Dorothy forms the point of the triangle right in front of us.
There we are. 1965. Life, an endless horizon, never bending. Happiness and success, certainties. Death, a foul rumor.