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Mr. Steele goes to Annapolis

A D.C. kid really can grow up to be lieutenant governor

(Published April 7, 2003)


Staff Writer

It was a tumultuous time to grow up in the nation’s capital 35 years ago, but Michael Steele remembers it well.

He was only 9 years old when he heard the news that his hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated, touching off a firestorm that consumed some of his hometown’s bustling commercial corridors. The landscape changed overnight, here and in other major cities across the country, and the social tension that followed in the riots’ wake left an indelible mark on Steele’s generation.

But Steele, 44, also remembers the thriving Petworth neighborhood of his childhood as an oasis from the social storm of the times. From his undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins University through his ascendancy to become chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and, currently, the state’s first African-American lieutenant governor, Steele said he has often returned mentally and spiritually to the serenity he experienced while growing up in a close-knit, devoutly Catholic family in Northwest Washington.

"While [Gov. Robert Ehrlich and I] were campaigning, it was very difficult when you’re being attacked or your integrity is questioned," Steele told The Common Denominator during a recent interview. "You need to have prayer. You can put things in perspective. Plus, those years of growing up in D.C. – the sense of family, the sense of achievement I had at [Archbishop] Carroll, the support of neighbors who said, ‘You can do it, Michael,’ is what you look back on in difficult times."

Steele arrived in the District in October 1958, three days after he was born in Prince George’s County, Md., at Andrews Air Force Base.

"[Petworth] was to a child’s eyes somewhat idyllic," Steele recalled. "In the fall, the men on the block would work on their cars at the same time and they would gather their leaves and the kids would jump in them. A lot of kids lived in my neighborhood. We were surrounded by schools like Clark Elementary" and others like Barnard Elementary at 430 Decatur St. N.W. and Powell at 350 Upshur St. N.W.

Petworth was also more racially mixed than some other parts of the city.

"There were some members of the white neighborhood who did not leave when they saw the black people coming," Steele said with a chuckle. "Everyone in the neighborhood looked out for one another."

Steele was very young when his father died, but he said neighbors "rallied around my mom to help her through the hard times."

Steele’s stepfather and mother, John and Maebell Turner, still live in Petworth. Steele visits them from time to time, but he said he rarely has the opportunity to walk around his old childhood haunts. His family’s meeting place has shifted from his parents’ home in the District to his sister Monica’s house in the Maryland suburbs. But when Steele does manage to visit Petworth, he notices a distinct difference between the Petworth of yesteryear and the one in which his parents now live.

"The neighborhood has changed a lot," Steele said. "First off, there’s a different feel to it. There aren’t as many children around… At one point, there was a lot of crime and vandalism. It grew from an idyllic place to a more urban place with its realities."

But there are some mainstays.

"My dad tells me that some of the old guys are still around," Steele said with another chuckle. "They still talk about the old days."

When it comes to Steele, quite a few people are willing to reminisce about the past.

May Young, Steele’s former homeroom teacher in 6th grade at St. Gabriel’s School on Webster Street NW, also remembered the serene social environment that Steele recalls. She joined the faculty at St. Gabriel’s in 1968 and still walks the school’s hallways and teaches in its classrooms 35 years later. Young has watched the faculty, the curriculum, the students and St. Gabriel’s neighborhood near Grant Circle change over the decades.

Young explained that the period that Steele described was more family-oriented and most of the kids who attended St. Gabriel’s at that time lived "right across the street."

Young said she definitely remembers Steele, one of her many students.

"He always wanted to be a priest. I remember that distinctly," she said.

"From 3rd or 4th grade, the priesthood was always there in the back of my mind," Steele elaborated. "I wanted to join a high school seminary but the priests advised against it, which was a good thing. They wanted me to experience something different out of life first. But the priesthood idea stayed with me throughout college."

His aspirations to join the church budded from a religious life that he called "his anchor" during his childhood. As a young boy, Steele would rise early in the morning with his mother, who prepared for a day of work at a laundry. She would then leave her son at St.Gabriel’s parish for the 7 o’clock weekday mass and Steele would help the priests with communion and observe the prayers of the parish nuns. Several clergymen inspired Steele as a young man, including the late Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta.

"You need those kind of figures in your life to help you discern what the possibilities are in your life," Steele said.

Steele’s former teacher Young boasted that along with his desire to be a priest, in elementary school Steele excelled academically as a B+ and A student, though she admitted he may have been sidetracked by puberty even with his pious ambitions.

"There was a time when adolescence stepped in, but he never dropped to a C student," Young said.

James Mumford, principal at Archbishop Carroll High School on Harewood Road NE, also remembers Steele well.

"Michael was always a great student," Mumford said. "But Michael was not interested in grades. He was more concerned with learning something. He was also very self-effacing and had a great sense of humor. He never took himself too seriously."

Mumford was an English teacher and drama director at Carroll when Steele attended. He said Steele’s leadership streak began to show in high school.

"When you’re that tall, that thin, that smart, it’s just inevitable that people will take notice of you," Mumford joked of the once lumbering teenager who would sometimes lend his class notes to other classmates.

While at Carroll, Steele was in the Glee Club, the National Honor Society, many of the school’s drama productions and, by most accounts, was not much of an athlete. During his senior year, 1976-77, he ran for student council president and won. He shared the ticket with William Shea, who ran as vice president.

Shea, now a clinical and forensic psychologist who lives in Sparta, N.J., remembers Steele as "a very sensitive type. He was very mature for the other kids who were around him," Shea said.

Attempts were made to contact more of Steele’s former Carroll classmates, but some declined comment.

Steele’s maturity was well-suited for the academic environment at Carroll. The formerly all-boys school was for Steele a prelude to a new world.

"I got to know guys who were from Bowie and Oxon Hill," Steele said. "For a guy like me, that was faraway, even if it was across the street."

Steele also got a chance to see "the other side of Washington" with the help of the Franciscan Order at Carroll. While working with the priests with charities in D.C. neighborhoods, Steele saw firsthand the poverty, crime and drug addiction he had been protected from for most of his life.

"You grow up in a neighborhood. You hear and see things," Steele said. "But this is how you got involved."

Nearly 30 years later, Mumford said he is not surprised by Steele’s upward climb from a self-proclaimed "little boy from D.C." to lieutenant governor of Maryland.

"I think you have a fantasy that one day one of your former students is in the Washington Post," Mumford said with a sigh. "It was a great thing to see."

Steele said he plans to visit Carroll in June. While there, Steele will be inducted into the school’s alumni hall of fame. His name will be listed alongside heads of companies like IBM and former presidents of colleges like the University of Notre Dame. Mumford said Steele will probably be the youngest inductee.

Mumford also suggested that Steele’s current post as Maryland lieutenant governor will not be the last of Steele’s achievements.

"I don’t think he’s finished yet," Mumford said. "This is just entry level for him."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator