Born on May 30, 1928 to Ruth and Albert Steele in
Chillicothe, Ohio, James Gladstone Steele, Sr. says he
grew up thinking they hung the Memorial Day flags out for
James and Jeanette Steele with the grandfather clock
made by his great great grandfather, who was a
He left Chillicothe after graduation from high school,
never to return. He was in his element at Duke University
in Durham, North Carolina - one of the nation's top-rated
schools - where he obtained two undergraduate degrees: he
graduated in 1950 with a degree in chemistry, then, faced
with the prospect of work as a salesman, he went back for
a degree in electrical engineering, finishing up in 1953.
Jim was as enthralled with the music at the university as
he was with its academic reputation. Accomplished at the
saxophone, clarinet, piano and violin, he and other Duke
musicians stepped into the footprints of former Duke
legends, like famed big band leaders Les Brown and Johnny
Long, to represent the university as the "Duke
As a member of the Ambassadors, he earned the nickname
James "Benny" Steele (after famed jazz clarinetist Benny
Goodman) thanks to a clarinet solo that he declares "was
"All the guys in the band started calling me Benny and it
stuck to this day," declares Jim, who over the years
enjoyed several reunions with ten to fifteen of his fellow
Ambassadors, some of whom went on to play with Les Brown,
Gene Krupa and Glen Miller.
"We haven't had one for several years, but we had three or
four over the last ten years and it was always fun; being
with those guys was just like I saw them all yesterday
from college," he says.
The Duke Ambassadors toured the South, playing
arrangements sent in by Les Brown as well as some written
by Jim and other members of the band.
When his schooling was finished, Jim, too, had the
opportunity to play with Les Brown as well as jazz drummer
Gene Krupa. Tempted, he passed up the opportunity, knowing
his love for music might draw him away from his more
traditional career goals.
James as one of the Duke Ambassadors
Still, he recognized that both his music and his aptitude
in the engineering field were linked by mathematical
"I used to tell people the reason I could play jazz and do
improvisation was because I like math," he says. "Songs
have a progression of chord changes and those are
mathematically based. Every once in awhile there are
exceptions. On new songs, if you listen to the first
chorus and pick out the exceptions, then you can play it."
Jim went to work with RCA in the semiconductor division in
New Jersey, commuting to his job from New York City.
"That was a really tremendous opportunity because there
were 40 people in that division, and I was one of the 40,"
says Jim, who says he was a "minor engineer" in a "huge
industry" of transistors, integrated circuits, and the
like. Others with whom he was in association in the field
were highly placed in ranks close to the presidency.
He had been in the job a year when he decided to bypass
the possibility of being drafted by joining the Navy at
the age of 26. He attended Officer's Candidate School in
Newport Rhode Island and, after receiving his commission,
signed up to be a pilot.
Half a year past the age limit, Jim was required to pass a
physical in order to participate. "They needed pilots, so
I got to go to Navy Flight School in Pensacola. Lo and
behold that was where Jeanette lived," he says, grinning
at his wife.
Jim married Jeanette McDonald in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
in 1956, then moved to his first assignment in
"Within a year, I crashed," relates the lucky airman who
escaped injury when his plane ran out of gas on his final
approach while practicing carrier landings on a shortened
runway at night.
"We were getting ready to go overseas on the USS Essex
Aircraft Carrier," explains Jim, who was part of an F2H-4
fighter squadron. "When you do carrier landings, you can't
have a full fuel tank or the plane will be too heavy to
land, so, you fill the tank half full. Well, my tank was
not half full."
Fresh from a complete overhaul, Jim was flying his
commanding officer's plane. A screw that was not fully
tightened into the faceplate of the fuel indicator caught
the needle, causing an erroneous fuel reading.
On his last landing, the plane stalled as it ran out of
gas and plowed through a forest, shearing the wings and
metal from the sides of the plane while Jim remained in
the pilot's seat, relatively unscathed.
Navy Pilot James G. Steele
"I was sore the next day," he acknowledges, while Jeanette
says she is thankful he is the one who called home to
report the mishap.
"So, we got through that and I got out about a year
later," says Jim, who returned to RCA in 1958.
One of his most memorable projects as an electrical
engineer for RCA was his design for the first computer
controlled test equipment for use in the manufacture of
semiconductors. "By today's standards it was a piece of
crap, but back then everybody thought it was pretty good,"
says Jim, who enjoyed traveling around the country
promoting the new technology.
The couple lived in a suburb of New York City from which
they could easily go into the city to enjoy evenings at
Jim's beloved jazz clubs and eat dinner in "delicious
In fact, Jim laughs, it was not his success at Duke
University, nor his becoming a pilot, nor his
contributions to technology that made him a success in the
eyes of his grandparents, union organizers Tom and Alice
Donnelly, both of whom worked as typesetters for the
Cincinnati Post (she being the first woman to be employed
at the newspaper); it was when he obtained his musician's
union card. "I had then achieved the pinnacle of success,"
The couple bought their first home, then went on vacation
to attend the wedding of Jim's sister and returned home
with his mother and father in tow, when RCA asked him to
move to Mountaintop, Pennsylvania in 1960.
"We had only owned the house for a week!" Jim exclaims,
then, looking at the bright side, says, "At RCA if they
ask you to move they'll pick up your house for you."
The couple's move north to Mountaintop, Pennsylvania in
the Pocono Mountains was "beautiful, but cold - really
cold," says Jeanette, who nevertheless smiles warmly upon
recollecting the people of the area.
"Wilkes-Barre (a neighboring community) had summer on the
fourth of July, the rest of the time there was three feet
of snow," Jim says, underscoring the impact of the
The coal mining population at Wilkes-Barre had lost their
livelihood following the Knox Mining disaster of January
22, 1959, when miners drilling too near the bed of the
Susquehanna River broke through, filling the entire
network of underground mines with rushing flood waters
that killed 12 men and left thousands unemployed.
"The people were pitifully poor; they were so in need of
work," recounts Jeanette sweetly. "When they came to RCA
to look for a job it was like they were going to church:
they wore hats and white gloves. They were nervous, but
they were good workers, and the women that worked there
just loved him, he was so patient with them."
Female workers were the mainstay of the operation that
depended upon their smaller fingers and manual dexterity,
Jim explains. Other companies moved into the area, as
well, to industrialize the former coal mining population
within five to six years of the mining mishap.
"These people had never had a job in industry; we had to
teach them everything," says Jim, who was Director of
Quality Control over the Mountaintop plant and four other
"The people were all Polish; their names were all
mouthfuls," Jeanette smiles, "They were great people. When
our children were born, masses of people came to hold
them. When Little Jimmy was born you'd have thought he was
their grandchild they loved him so much."
"Little Jimmy", renowned locally as a sportswriter for The
McKenzie Banner, was born on June 17, 1961, with sister
Sue following on February 26, 1964. Both children grew up
with the musical inclinations of their father plus solid
foundations in physical fitness that led Sue to become an
All-American basketball player for University of the South
and Jim to try out for the Cincinnati Reds at the age of
16. He played in the fall for the University of Cincinnati
and later for Bethel College.
"I wanted them both to go to Duke, but they were no more
interested in that..." begins Jim with a mixture of
consternation and pride over the individual
accomplishments of his children. Sue, now married to Bob
Askew, lives in Sewanee where both she and her husband
work for the University of the South.
As the children were growing toward school age, Jim and
Jeanette chose to return to Somerville in 1967 for the
cultural and educational opportunities offered in nearby
New York City, an idea that was thwarted time and again
when protests over the Vietnam War, political
assassinations, and the like prevented such adventures.
On Thanksgiving week in 1968 Jim left his job as Director
of Management Information Systems for RCA and moved his
family to Melbourne, Florida, where he became Vice
President of Operations at the Harris Semiconductor
Company, responsible for some 3000 employees.
"That's where I really got my business experience; how to
deal with customers and generate the contracts, hire the
people, the whole nine yards," says Jim concerning his
work with the company that was involved in the manufacture
of the Poseidon missiles.
After seven years, however, he received an offer he
couldn't refuse, and the family moved to Tennessee where
Jim assumed the helm of Collins Industries in Greenfield
while making their home in McKenzie. With four plants -
one of which was in Ireland - Jim gained international
experience as president of the company that manufactured
"Today 100% of capacitors are made in countries like Japan
and Korea," says Jim, explaining the economics of the
evolution toward importing, rather than manufacturing,
capacitors. "After a number of years we couldn't compete
with the price of Japanese capacitors. We made ours for 15
cents each while theirs were a penny. I finally decided,
'If you can't fight them, join them.'"
He started own business, the J.G. Steele Company,
importing capacitors from Taiwan and Japan. "I got to know
those folks," he says. After ten to 12 years, as Jim
considered retirement at the age of 60, neighboring
businessman Bob Rutledge expressed an interest in assuming
the business. The name of the company was changed to
Steele Capacitors, and remains in business today.
James Steele peruses the family Bible that is nearly
200 years old for information about his family's
Jim and Jeanette spent the next ten years taking trips to
Florida, getting their daughter through college, and
spending a lot of time in reunions with the Duke
Ambassadors and on family trips.
"After about ten years I decided I was getting bored; I'm
a person who likes to be doing stuff," Jim shares. "Bob
Prosser had begun the process to turn Bethel College
around and I could help him. I called him up and said,
'I've got to be doing something, I'm going to come help
you.' He said, 'Come to work tomorrow.'"
So it was that in 1998 Jim first began helping the
freshmen students become acclimated to the college and
life on their own. "They got to where they would call me
and say, 'Help me do this and help me do that,'" he grins.
"That first year the students gave me an award for being
helpful and that was nice."
His duties have gradually expanded until, as Director of
Physical Facilities, he "points the way along with the
maintenance department" in targeting needed repairs and is
also responsible for the Bethel Bookstore and the Wildcat
Given to James' mother when she was 7 years old,
this porcelain doll is tressed with her own auburn
At home, Jim and Jeanette are steeped in the profundity of
the Steele ancestry: A Grandfather clock that dwarfs more
modern models reaches toward the lofty ceiling, still
keeping good time. The clock was made by Jim's great great
grandfather, a clockmaker from Bigger, Scotland whose wife
hand painted the dainty farmhouse and curling flowers that
decorate the face of the timepiece. Passed through the
family's male lineage, the clock had made its way to Jim's
uncle, who, having never married, passed the clock on to
A worn family Bible on the coffee table is full of the
graceful script of yesteryear, dating special family
occurrences back to 1822, and upon the mantle are three
books depicting the life of William Gladstone, who served
four terms as Prime Minister of England between 1868-1894,
and whose name Jim carries as his middle name.
"We are related to the woman that married him," shares
Jim, referring to Catherine Glynne, the daughter of the
local squire, Sir Stephen Glynne, of Hawarden Castle.
Still more intriguing are the paintings, darkened with age
- including a painting of impressive size that Jeanette
calls the Black Forest - that were painted by Jim's
grandmother, Alice Steele, and a lovely porcelain doll his
mother received at the age of seven, which is crown with
her own auburn tresses.
From Ohio, from Duke University, from New York, New Jersey
and the Pocono Mountains, and finally from Florida,
Carroll County was blessed as Jim and Jeanette Steele
followed their destiny to the small town of McKenzie. For
their association with the community and for "Little
Jimmy" who has garnered his own following as one of our
own, we give our thanks.