Campus News

Bowdoin Mourns the Passing of Admissions Dean Richard Steele

Story posted May 12, 2010

The Bowdoin College community is mourning the death of Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Emeritus Richard E. Steele, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 71.

Dick Steele300.jpg
Richard E. Steele

Steele devoted his entire career to college admissions and college counseling, serving as dean or assistant dean at Bates, Vassar, Vermont, Carleton, Duke and Bowdoin.

In a letter to the Bowdoin community, President Barry Mills said Steele — who served as dean of admissions at Bowdoin from 1991-01, and as acting dean in 2005-06 — was "a good friend to many" who "was instrumental in transforming the lives of literally thousands of students."

May 12, 2010

To Members of the Bowdoin Community,

I am very sad to report that Dick Steele, Bowdoin's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Emeritus and a good friend to so many, passed away last night after a nine-month struggle with cancer — a battle he faced with resolve, characteristic good cheer, and extraordinary courage. Dick was 71 at the time of his death.

Dick devoted his entire career and enormous energy and talent to college admissions, and he was widely respected throughout the country for his knowledge and creativity. Dick was instrumental in transforming the lives of literally thousands of students while also guiding the careers of those who, like him, saw great value and purpose in promoting and improving access to higher education in America.

Dick was born in Lewiston, Maine, on April 4, 1939, and graduated from Lewiston High School. A member of the Harvard Class of 1961, he went on to earn his master’s degree at the University of Vermont and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin — both in English. He began his career back home in Lewiston as assistant to the dean of admissions at Bates. From there, he would go on to serve as assistant director of admissions at Vassar, director of admissions at the University of Vermont, and dean of admissions at Carleton College in Minnesota, where he worked alongside then-Carleton president and future Bowdoin President Robert Edwards. In 1986 Dick was named director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University where he was credited with increasing the number of applications from students with superior academic records, including a sharp increase in applications from students of color. In 1991 Dick was invited by President Edwards to apply for the dean of admissions position at Bowdoin and he returned with enthusiasm to his home state of Maine to lead our admissions program.

Dick was highly effective here, growing Bowdoin’s applicant pool significantly while sustaining its quality. He initiated recruiting in Europe and Asia to increase Bowdoin’s flow of international students; established Bowdoin’s National Merit Scholars program; and initiated Bowdoin’s Posse and Chamberlain Scholarship programs. Always self-effacing, Dick quietly advanced Bowdoin's admissions and need-blind financial aid programs with integrity and imagination. It was Dick Steele who, as dean, rediscovered the powerful words of William deWitt Hyde and made "The Offer of the College" a renewed hallmark of Bowdoin’s student recruitment efforts. Dick's creative touch was recognized in 2001 when former Duke University President Dr. H. Keith H. Brodie—who had recruited Dick to Duke — and his wife established the Richard E. Steele Chair in Studio Art at Bowdoin.

Upon his retirement in 2001, Dick decided to try his hand at writing fiction. He published his first novel, Black Out, a CIA mystery thriller, in 2005. But he never turned completely away from college counseling, continuing to work as a consultant for the College Board while also teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and offering his expertise and advice whenever he was asked. His warm approach and reassuring smile eased the stress of the college admissions process for countless students and their families, and he was always willing to counsel the sons and daughters — even the distant relatives — of faculty, staff and friends.

Devoted to Bowdoin and always generous with his time, Dick came out of retirement at my request in 2005 to serve as interim dean when his successor, Jim Miller, left the College to become dean of admissions at Brown University. In 2006 Dick retired for the second time and was elected Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Emeritus with gratitude by the Board of Trustees. In 2007 the College Board recognized Dick’s service and leadership in college counseling with the Edward B. Wall Award. Most recently, he served as a trustee at Waynflete School in Portland and at Summer Explorations in Norwood, Mass.

Later this month, I will have the honor of awarding Bowdoin degrees to the last class of exceptional young men and women admitted to Bowdoin by Dick Steele. During his time at Bowdoin, Dick was instrumental in changing the College in ways that endure today.

With Dick’s passing, Bowdoin and the entire college admissions community have lost a valued colleague and leader, and an attentive mentor. As he struggled with cancer these past months, Dick would always deflect questions or concern about his health — he wanted to know how others were doing — and he talked about how grateful he was to have this time with his wife, Deb. He was determined to squeeze as much happiness as he could out of the time that remained, and in the process, he inspired others with his courage and his wonderful outlook on life.

It was Dick’s wish that memorial contributions be used to fund scholarships for international students. Contributions may be made to Bowdoin College, in care of the Secretary of the College, 4100 College Station, Brunswick, ME 04011-8432.

A celebration of Dick’s life will be held on Saturday, May 22, 2010, at 2:00 p.m. in the Bowdoin Chapel. In the meantime, I know that each of you joins Karen and me in conveying heartfelt condolences to Dick’s wife, Deb; to his children, Alison, Kristen, and Jonathan ‘97; his stepchildren, Jefferson and Peter Bates; and to the entire Steele and Snite families during this very difficult and sad time.

Sincerely yours,

Barry Mills

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