BILLINGS - War hero and longtime Billings educator Ben Steele said naming the new West End middle school after him is his greatest honor.
Steele couldn’t stop grinning Monday afternoon as he took a phone call from Elizabeth and Michael Norman, authors of “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath,” and signed copies of the book while he primped for interviews with the news media.
“This is one of the greatest highlights of my life,” Steele said.
Just a few hours earlier, Steele got a call from his daughter, Julie Jorgenson, informing him that the Billings school board had voted unanimously to name the new
middle school after Steele. His name was on one of the early lists, but didn’t make the final cut. Two other names, Rimview and Jeannette Rankin, were the top choices.
“Maybe I’ll have a Frosty or a cheeseburger to celebrate,” said Steele, followed by a big laugh.
Steele is already planning to donate at least two paintings or prints to the school and his wife, Shirley, will call Steele’s former student and professional sculptor, John Petek, to tell him they have found a home for the life-size statue he is making of Steele.
Steele’s grandfather homesteaded in an area just a few miles east of where the new school will be built on Grand Avenue and 56th Street West.
Steele admitted he didn’t start out much of a student. That came later, after he survived the Bataan Death March and more than four years as a prisoner of war during World War II.
“In second grade, my aunt Josephine was my teacher over in the Bull Mountains,” Steele said. “She didn’t think much of me as a student. I didn’t give a damn about school. I just wanted to ride my horse out to check my trap line.”
Steele went on to earn a master’s degree in art and teach for more than 20 years at Montana State University Billings and Eastern Montana College. He often says, “Art saved my life.”
Some of his former colleagues and students mimic that phrase and say Steele saved their lives. Retired MSU Billings art professor Neil Jussila said he met Steele just after Jussila returned from Vietnam and was struggling with nightmares.
“Ben took me out on the Gallatin River and taught me how to fly-fish. He always said, ‘Don’t take things so seriously,’ “ Jussila said. “He saved my life.”
There was a bit of noise when Steele got the news of the naming Monday afternoon and the staff at the West End assisted care facility where he is living were shouting as well.
“They were all ecstatic,” Steele said.
Eileen Pinkerton, of Billings, spoke at the school board meeting and then bought the last two copies of “Tears in the Darkness” at Barnes and Noble. She pointed to Steele’s signature on the first page.
Pinkerton was part of a community group that formed about two weeks ago to push for the new school to be named for Steele.
“I think this is going to bring joy to the people of Billings, especially the teachers. So many of the teachers who we asked to sign the petition said how wonderful it would be to have a school named after a teacher,” Pinkerton said.