Wednesday, June 7, 2006 02:08 pm
A different memorial day
Tournament and scholarship program established by late golfers family marks 20th year
Pardon the folks on Bob-O-Link Drive for missing a few traditional late-May cookouts, swimming-pool opening days and Indy 500s. For going on two decades now, John and Dixie Steele have postponed their own personal Memorial Day for a couple of weekends — until the last divot is replaced and the last score is posted at the golf tournament they founded to raise scholarship money in the name of their late son, Michael. Begun as a labor of family love and remembrance, the top-flight amateur tournament known as the Mike Steele Memorial tees off for the 20th time the weekend of June 10 and 11 at the Rail Golf Club. Quietly, over that time, it has raised well in excess of $100,000 to give a strong head start in life to 19 former athletes at eight different Springfield-area high schools. “We wanted something that Michael himself might have put at the top of his competitive schedule,” John Steele says. “He loved golf, he played it with great talent and spirit, and he made his closest friends through their association with the game.” To make this year’s memories even richer, Steele expects 11 of 18 living past scholarship winners to attend this year’s event. One who can’t be there, and wished to remain anonymous, has sent an $8,000 donation. A special section of the event program will be devoted to an update on the lives and successes of previous Steele scholarship winners. The 19th recipient, former Calvary Academy basketball standout Malcolm Holman, died in 2003, soon after learning that he had leukemia, the same disease that claimed the life of the tournament’s namesake in 1986. Mike Steele was tall and blond, built for athletics in general and the game of golf in particular. He went to old St. Agnes Grade School, in the morning shadows of the Capitol. He continued to make a name for himself at then-Griffin High School and began to live out his dream as a golfer, on scholarship, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Life was no less rewarding, back then, for John and Dixie. They both worked as Michael and his sister, Kelly, grew up. John, a printer at the State Journal-Register, coached several of his son’s youth-baseball teams, and father and son shared countless hours together on the public golf courses around Springfield. Then, near the end of his college career, Mike was found to have leukemia. He left school, endured months of painful treatment, and, as his leukemia went into remission for more than six years, reconnected with competitive golf as both a top amateur player and, later, as a professional, working at club jobs and considering a run at the minitours that then served as a proving ground for PGA Tour itself. His disease reappeared, however, and, though he endured some additional treatment, Mike soon decided that his final months and weeks would be better spent enjoying his family, spending time with his friends, and, of course, playing the game that he loved. It was the very next year, after his death in 1986, that John and Dixie decided to rally family, neighbors, and friends into a determined organization that dedicated itself to creating a living memorial — most appropriately, a first-class golf tournament bearing the name of a son whose promising golf career was cut short at the age of 26. “It was beyond imagination, in the beginning, that we would come this far,” says John Steele. “It was just plugging away, from one year to the next, trying to keep things going, make improvements where we could. Once we got started, we sort of couldn’t stop. I guess I’m glad we didn’t.” Strong fields continued to play each year, and the Steele title remains one of the more prestigious in the circles of central-Illinois men’s amateur golf. But each year it would be John, and mostly John, who started months ahead of tournament week, reserving dates, contacting prospective players, and personally hustling the program ads that were the event’s financial lifeblood. After year 17, with grandson Corey Kates having being awarded the Steele Scholarship, John and Dixie declared themselves “tired” and wanted to fold their tent. But a devoted group of Mike’s former teammates and fellow competitors have joined the Steele Memorial core group to keep the event going strong in recent years. Now aligned with the men’s golf program at Springfield College in Illinois, the event is expected to welcome a full field of 140 golfers this year — and is enjoying its most successful fundraising season to date. “It’s still the family we rely on for guidance, and John still hustles up a large share of the ads,” says Joe Bartletti, the committee chair in recent years. “They thought about lowering the curtain a few years ago, that they were getting older and didn’t have the energy — but it only took a nudge and an expanded group of volunteers to keep the fire burning.” Adds Adam Walsh, SCI golf coach and a member of the Steele Memorial Committee, “Through my years in golf, I’ve seen events of this magnitude started, some even sustained for several years before the energy somehow dies out. This group of people is too determined to let that happen.” In this milestone season, attention also will be focused, appropriately, on the enduring legacy that is the distinguished group of young men and women, student-athletes from throughout the Springfield area, who have their names on the scholarship plaque. “It’s been special this year contacting our former winners and catching up on their lives since high school,” John Steele says. “As high-school seniors, they stood out as determined and self-motivated. As adults they made their marks in many ways, and many are still part of our community in Springfield and central Illinois.” The group includes engineers, educators, counselors, a film preservationist, and just plain good kids who today are good parents — the kind Mike Steele surely knew he was blessed with.