Anna Campbell Palmer.

Joel Dorman Steele, teacher and author; online

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fessorship for which her husband had made ultimate


Joel Dorman Steele

provision, and she has since annually provided for all
its current expenses.

As Physics was Dr. Steele's favorite science, it was
chosen as the basis of the professorship. But the Physi-
cal apparatus of the young University was exceedingly
meager, and the eminent scientist who was called to the
chair was discouraged by the prospect. Again the faith-
ful wife rose to the emergency, and to the thousands of
dollars she contributed were added other thousands by
the appreciative trustees, so that, now, in the handsome
limestone building which represents the Steele professor-
ship on the University campus, there is an exceptional
array of rare instruments and as fine electric appliances
as can be found in any college in the land.

In the matter of the church, as in the matter of the
university, the wife exceeded the measure of her hus-
band's will. In the new building which rose upon the
ashes of the old, she placed a large memorial window
designed by herself and executed by Donald MacDonald
of Boston. The upper half consists of four illustrative
panels. In the first his early piety is represented by a
figure of Samuel at prayer ; it bears the legend : " Speak,
Lord, for Thy servant heareth." The second depicts the
soldier, — David with his sling : " Thy servant will go
and fight." The third is the teacher, — a guiding angel :
" I will speak of thy wondrous works." The fourth is
the author — St. John : "And he said unto me. Write."
In the ornamental arch over the panels are the words :
" God that made the world and all things therein, Him
declare I unto you." The lower half of the window is a
copy of Raphael's cartoon of St. Paul preaching at
Athens, At the base, below the name and the dates of
birth and death, are placed two inscriptions, side by side,

Life's Immortal Beauty

which read, respectively : " To perpetuate the memory
of a sincere Christian, a loyal patriot, a generous bene-
factor and an earnest teacher," and " This window is
here placed by her to whom God granted the supreme
joy of best knowing the grace and beauty of his un-
sullied life." The exquisite coloring and workmanship
of this memorial window are unsurpassed.

On the opposite side of the pulpit is another beau-
tiful stained glass window of equal size, a tribute from
some of Dr. Steele's friends and pupils. It represents
the parable of " The Faithful Steward," and among other
inscriptions bears the texts : " God gave him riches and
honor and he was a faithful steward," and " Lord, thou
deliveredst unto me five talents ; behold I have gained
beside them, five talents more. His Lord said unto
him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant ; thou
hast been faithful in a few things, I will make thee
ruler over many things ; enter thou into the joy of thy

From small to great things in the record of his life
the faithfulness of Dr. Steele's stewardship was conspic-
uous no less than the increase of his talents — already
marked. A letter to Mrs. Steele in 1862 says :

" I have applied my money to the wants of my soldiers'
families. Some of my men have been two months without
a cent, and their families are suffering. I have loaned them
in all over a hundred dollars."

This was the frugal, self-denying teacher-soldier, whose
salary had never been more than eight hundred a year,
and whose livelihood depended on the favor of school

In 1883 he wrote, in answer to an invitation to join

Joel Dorman Steele

Mr. A. S. Barnes and wife in a trip to cover interesting
points both in and out of the United States :

" For pleasure and physical benefit nothing could please
me more. But it involves large expense and I find the
increasing demands upon me for generosity, together with
my need of books, lectures and travel difficult to check.
People have an idea that I am really a rich man — a sort
of fourteen-weeks millionaire — and my responses to their
appeals seem to them niggardly enough. I have some heavy
burdens on me in church and elsewhere, so that my income
is nearly half absorbed before I touch it for personal use."

But with all his liberal impulse it would have been
impossible for him to carry to fullest usefulness his plans
for others, without the constant and unselfish co-opera-
tion of one, who with perfect and remarkable sympathy
rose to the level of every intellectual and spiritual aspi-
ration. Rare is the compatibility that is preserved
through the contrasts of an experience, begun amid the
restrictions of narrow means and coming to the expan-
sions of large income, with all it implies of increased
accountability and social dignity. Dr. Steele, in the
spontaneous open-heartedness of habitual giving, as well
as in the deliberate proposals of far-reaching bounty,
found himself always cordially supported by his wife.
Together they talked, in the last years, of some gift of
abiding usefulness, and she warmly coincided with his
final decision that it should be the founding of the Syra-
cuse chair.

There was, however, another noble-minded desire set
aside by this choice, A dear dream he had often dreamed
had been that of an ample public library in his home
city. He concluded to talk no more of this, however,
as an individual undertaking, when he determined on

Life's Immortal Beauty

the work that was wider in its scope and influence.
Yet he often suggested it to his fellow-citizens as an en-
terprise for all. In a letter from the south to the " El-
mira Advertiser," he wrote, in 1881 :

" Atlanta has achieved what we in Elmira have desired
for so many years — a public library. Mr. Brown, president
of the library association, called upon me and gave me a
most interesting history of the enterprise. ... If we could
only find Mr. Brown's double — a man who would give
himself up, body and soul, to the great enterprise, I believe
we might in Elmira establish a grand Public Library that
would be the pride of the city."

After the chair of Theistic Science became a fact,
Mrs. Steele, cherishing the memory of her husband's
generous instincts, and equally inspired by her own,
began to plan new things in loving remembrance. So,
in her loyal heart and mind, the library thought grew,
and finally became a definite project. It was several
years before she felt she might safely begin positive
work ; then she set in motion the bewildering detail of
professional and industrial stir necessary to the execu-
tion of her design.

The corner-stone of " Steele Memorial Library Build-
ing " was laid May 27, 1895, nine years to a day from
the date of Dr. Steele's burial. In August, 1899, the
library was formally opened to the public, and at once
found extraordinary patronage.

The gift when turned over to the people of the city
represented the sum of sixty-five thousand dollars, cu-
rios and pictures included. The building itself, which
is one of the handsomest edifices in the city, cost over
forty thousand. A great number of the volumes are

Joel Dorman Steele

scientific, historical, sociological, and metaphysical.
They are by the highest authorities and of untold value
to students and thinkers. The circulating department,
which carries benefit to many homes, is a growing and
increasingly useful feature.

The rich beauty and fitness of the library proper are
not excelled, it is safe to say, within the state. Perfect
harmony of proportion, coloring, and equipment delight
and educate the frequenter, and every arrangement is
planned with a view to the comfort and convenience
of those who come to take away or to remain for study.
The finely lettered and gilded mottoes, which adorn the
frieze on the four sides of the reading-room — a sug-
gestion borrowed from the Congressional Library in
Washington — are diamond chips of thoughts which en-
rich the memory of even a casual visitor.

" Read not to contradict and to confute ; nor to believe
and take for granted ; nor to find talk and discourse ; but
to weigh and consider." — Bacon.

" Knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven." —

" Get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding."
— Solomon.

" The true university of these days is a collection of books.
In books lies the soul of the whole past time." — Carlyle.

" Glory is acquired by Virtue, but preserved by letters." —

" Beholding the bright countenance of Truth in the quiet
and still air of delightful studies." — Milton.

" Books are a substantial world, both pure and good." —

" Every book we read may be made a round in the ever
lengthening ladder by which we climb to knowledge." —


Life's Immortal Beauty

No nobler gift than a library can be offered to any
community. If not a first, it is always an ultimate,
necessity. It is in its ministrations the companion of
the church and the school, and wherever founded, it must
become the centre of an uplifting and ampler intellectual
life, charming and blessing successive generations. As
the bounty of a man, it is an undertaking of no small
moment. For a woman its inception and accomplish-
ment is a vaster task, only to be measured by the en-
lightened gratitude of the generations that will enjoy its

Mrs. Steele's fidelity to the expressed or apprehended
wishes of her husband have, as is seen, led her into an
independent courage of plan and a fervor in execution
equal to her collaborative adaptability — which amounted
to positive genius. And she has considered and aided
many causes wherein the world has never seen her hand.

It was the founder's wish to call her gift the " Joel
Dorman Steele Memorial Library," but in this she was
overruled by advisers. It therefore stands without dis-
criminating title, but appropriately bearing the name
to which both husband and wife have brought distinc-
tion, and which must evermore call to mind the life it
commemorates and the wifely devotion that seeks to
extend — as he would have extended — its gracious

In Syracuse, also, the names are connected with the
University in equal and permanent honor. The faith-
fulness of Mrs. Steele in carrying out the provisions of
her husband's will, and her further abundant liberaHties,
gained the admiration and gratitude of the University
authorities, and when, in 1897, a beautiful and commo-
dious Science building was erected, it was voted to carve
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Life's Immortal Beauty

in the stone above the entrance the words " Esther
Baker Steele Hall of Physics." The University had
already, in 1892, conferred upon her the honorary title
of Doctor of Literature in recognition of her intellectual
attainments and achievements, and in 1895 she had
been elected to a place on the board of trustees.

The immortal beauty of any life is its love and the
deeds of blessing that spring therefrom. Over this the
shadows of death cannot prevail. Far and steadfastly
it shines from its altar of renunciation, obedience and
fealty. Far and steadfastly with undying radiance
streams the enlightening glow of its pure flame, which
has kindled and shall kindle many another holy ardor.




IN making up a volume illustrative of the character
and services of Dr. Steele, his personal letters and
literary remains are an embarrassment of riches. The
books have been passed with their simple history of rise,
progress and permanent power. They stand on the
roll of famous books forever, known in councils of
schoolmen, and teaching even when, superseded by
later thought, their pages no longer fascinate the eye
and the heart of the young. Sold by the million, trans-
lated into Arabic and Japanese, used in many schools
of South America and put into raised letters for the
blind, they tell their own tale of the man back of them,
who gave no countenance to any theory that overlooked
the Divine Creator. They proclaim the teacher and the
author, who, more and more, as he was brought into the
relation of care-taker and guide to the young, shook
himself clear of the restraints of mechanical pedagogy,
and swung into the untrammelled freedom of a fine,
perceiving nature. They speak of the reverent be-
liever who taught spiritual things as potently as he
taught intellectual things ; who throughout his life joined
the knowledge of the schools to the wisdom approved
of God ; who looked beyond the careless hours of youth-
ful wilfulness, plot, and rebellion, farther than any tempo-

Joel Dorman Steele

rary condition of the schoolroom and saw the waiting
and just compensations of time.

But his books probably contain not more than half
the writings of his life. There were also countless lec-
tures, parlor talks, addresses for church societies,
entertainments, and conferences ; papers for teachers'
institutes, associations, and conventions ; and some of
the most practical and eloquent sermons ever delivered
in any pulpit or before graduating classes of young

Besides all these there were letters — so many that
they would represent an ordinary man's lifetime of labor.
From the army he constantly wrote graphic letters for
publication, often several columns long. When abroad
or at any point in his own country distant from home,
he sent to his home papers richly instructive and enter-
taining accounts of all he saw and heard. On current
topics, local or otherwise, he put into print the shrewd-
est good sense and a foresight that recalls to the reader
of this day the words once spoken of his " prophet's

This " vision " explains much of the enduring quali-
ties of man and work. His opinions, written long ago
on political tendencies, on alcohol and its problems, on
slavery and its outcome, on the status of the negro.
North and South, stand verified to-day. With quick
foresight he recognized the living truth, followed
wherever it led, and was able to forecast conditions
and to say the instructive word of present forbearance
and expectation. This quality enlarges the sphere of
any man and carries his life beyond death with infinite
expansion and accomplishment.

This chapter will be devoted to some quotations from
1 80

From His Desk

his writings which seem especially to contain in them-
selves the heart of love, wisdom, and instruction. As
showing the unconscious disclosure of his universally
considerate nature a few personal paragraphs are given.
There is one little letter written to a young lady, a
dear friend of Dr. and Mrs. Steele, and called by them
in allusion to an epithet once playfully given, " The
Wily Fox." It acknowledged an announcement of her
betrothal :

" Your message does not take me entirely by surprise.
A bird had whispered in my ear that the trap was set and
frequently visited by a certain eager sportsman, while the
fox seemed to have lost much of its old-time wiliness. As
a man I rejoice greatly over your capture at last. It is
another triumph of my sex.

"And now accept my sincerest congratulations over this
defeat of yours — which is a victory. A brimming quarter
of a century has taught me the blessedness of married life.
I can express no better wish for you than that your experi-
ence may be the counterpart of mine."

Another letter, written late in his ife, demonstrates
his respectful attitude toward the opinions of others
even when they were contrary to his own. It is in ref-
erence to an evangelistic work not to his taste :

" Those things to which I object seem not only sensa-
tional but something beyond this, which I am unwilling to
characterize lest I misjudge. I cannot, however, sympa-
thize with them nor work in such meetings, and I feel that
my absence from town has been beneficial, since I might,
by non-attendance, have been a hindrance to a revival which
seems to have done great good. It comes to me as a con-
stant admonition that 'what is one man's meat is another
man's poison.' A method that really harms one may directly
benefit another. I rose from hearing a sermon, not long

Joel Dorman Steele

since, saying to myself tliat I had done my duty and at-
tended church, but had received no help. Going home, I
walked with a good brother who warmly expressed his
spiritual betterment. I was therefore bound to beheve that
was a good sermon for somebody, and resolved to be increas-
ingly careful about criticising from the mere standpoint of
personal preference."

Of his attention to the claims of church methods his
letters amply testify :

" I spoke at the church sociable last night, and am pretty
tired this morning. I did not feel much like doing it, but
it was thought something about my travels would increase
attendance. Our friends seemed pleased."

This was for Mrs. Steele, to whom alone he spoke of
the effect of his public appearances as a speaker. From
his impressive success at Lima, Commencement week,
1863, which fixed the attention of many educational
people upon him, to the Regents' Convocation address
of 1884, his dearest pleasure in applause was the thought
that it would be grateful to her.

" I exhibit this egotism of telling how the audience re-
ceived my thoughts, only because I know it will be happify-
ing to you."

But hosts of private letters, with their temptations for
a gleaner, must fold their revealinga away. The further
quotations are from articles prepared for the public which
asked for them and which he sought to instruct. The
first two date from his college life. Even in those days
he wrote with wonderful discernment. Evidently later
in life he examined with some surprise these boyish
thoughts, for on a margin opposite a particularly excel-

From His Desk

lent opinion, neatly expressed, are these words in his
mature "handwriting : "I wonder if this was original."
It is interesting to note that those first reflections and
conclusions mark the foundation principles on which all
his activity was based :

1858 : " The world needs benefactors, self-sacrificing men
who will devote their lives to promoting the happiness, not
of one body and one soul, but of many bodies and many

" A thought can never perish nor a thinker be dead."

" Every exposure of fraud is an evangel of hon-

1865 : " Nothing is of any value until it becomes sub-
servient to law. The lightning flaming its banners in the
sky may charm us or may frighten us ; its descending bolt
may kill ; but its value becomes apparent only when a yoke is
placed upon it and darting along its wire track it flashes
thought as the sun flashes light.

"The river flows toward the ocean almost uselessly —
but bind it, gather up its headlong force and a power is
developed that grinds our corn, spins our cotton, weaves our
cloth and becomes the grand industrial agency of the arts.
Steam flies off the surface of boiling water and is lost to
view. But set bounds to it beyond which it may not pass,
call out its latent energies, and a strength is secured which
bears the heaviest burdens and sweeps through the longest
journeys unwearied.

" Take a child : its passions are wild and inflammable, its
mind aimless, its will stubborn and refractory. Left to itself,
it has no power to control itself or others. It will grow up
disorderly, impatient, erratic — careless of the proprieties of
church and state, the rights of others and the duties of on-
coming manhood. Let restraint be placed upon him ; let
him understand the law that is the basis of authority ; let
him be taught control of body and mind, and there comes
into his soul and life an immortal strength."


Joel Dorman Steele

From a lecture to young people, 1868 :

" No truth in science is clearer than that we reap just as we
sow. Nature is an inexorable master. She keeps her debt
and credit account without balancing till the last farthing is
paid. In the light-hearted jollity of youth we sow late
hours, hearty suppers, folly and dissipation. By and by
with tears we garner pains, indigestion, and premature old

" We are often startled by the crash that seems to wreck
a fair reputation at a blow. Men cry out at the sudden
downfall. The wise man goes to the root of the fallen tree
and there detects the marks of decay following the hurt of
an evil hour's thought or conduct. No great crime comes
suddenly, except to the on-looker. O, how changed would
be the life if we but reaped the harvest in the furrow ! "

From a lecture to pupils on growth, 1869 :

"Character is self-evolved. It is not something taken
on — a varnish, a gilding — but an educating, a drawing out
of the forces of the soul. We hear a great deal about self-
made men, as if they were a distinct class. It is a mislead-
ing term. All men are self-made if made at all. All men
are self-educated, if educated at all. You cannot take on
character. You must grow it. Other men's labor, no
matter how well-intentioned, cannot impart it to you. Teach-
ing even of the best kind, maxims of even the purest
stamp, information, facts, experience, are of no good except
they stimulate growth, force you to think. Your studies are
only valuable as they develop your powers. The thing that
will constitute your fitness for life is your habit of thought;
your quickness of apprehension ; your thoroughness of exe-
cution ; your power of adapting means to an end and of
organizing success ; the ability of self-control you have
developed — this forms the permanent part of your school-
work. The rest will soon mainly go by the board and be
forgotten in the rush of life."

From His Desk

From " Hints Pedagogical," a lecture for very young
teachers :

1874: " ' But,' says one, ' I have some hard cases in my
school.' My friends, he is a poor carpenter who never
worked up anything but ' clear lumber.' That farmer has
something yet to learn who never held a plough among fast
stones and hemlock stumps. Set your heart on making a
man of that rough boy, a woman of that forbidding girl.
There is a deal of sentimentalism afloat on this subject,
especially in little story-books with red backs and much
gilt. In these is shown how nicely a little and awful vaga-
bond was reformed, made to wear good clothes like a Chris-
tian and become a bright and shining light in easy stages.
But Ignorance in reality is not so charming. Ignorance is
filthy; talks bad grammar; swears; looks unamiable; plays
mean tricks ; accepts favors and forgets to thank the donor ;
is annoying and perplexing; takes good advice for the sake
of new clothes — wears out the clothes and throws away the
advice. But what of that ! There is your opportunity."

From a " Parlor talk on German Schools," 1876 :

" The continent seems to me no place for the education
of our boys and girls. To the former especially the tempta-
tions are incalculably greater than here. The customs of
foreign society and of student life encourage that which must
demoralize the pupil, and which in American circles would
be a shame and disgrace. I can hardly see how a boy, left
alone at Paris or Berlin can escape unsullied, except by a
miracle. He would be a new Lot in Sodom — -a new Joseph
in Egypt.

" Yet, strangely enough, boys of sixteen or seventeen,
with unfixed principles and unformed habits, are sent abroad
to pursue their studies with no relatives to watch over them,
no friends to care for them. Living in boarding-houses,
unfamiliar with the language and customs of the country ;
shut out necessarily from the really best society, removed
from the privileges of church and home, deprived of the


Joel Dorman Steele

restraints of public opinion, exposed to all the perils of a
strange land, — they are thrust out at an age when we should
surround them with every safeguard.

" Besides all this, there remains the fact that a boy
educated in Germany will inevitably imbibe notions alien
to our American and republican ideas. His manners, his
types of thought, his style of speaking and judging, will
be affected. One sentence will embody any enlargement
of this argument: An American should be educated in

" Let us gather around our own institutions. If we turn
our eyes abroad, let it be only to bring home the experience
of the centuries to enrich our native land. Let us enlarge
the facilities of our universities, giving them professors,
libraries, museums, and apparatus; pouring into their treas-
uries the wealth we may acquire; realizing that they must be
our centres of intellectual life ; the Gymnasia of our culture
and refinement ; the hope alike of art, literature, science and

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Online LibraryAnna Campbell PalmerJoel Dorman Steele, teacher and author; → online text (page 15 of 18)