Whoever took on the role as the Chair of the Geology Department in the mid 1950s had big shoes to fill.
Though Ralph Whipple was set to retire in 1955 after nearly 40 years of service at Marietta, the College was shocked to lose the beloved professor six months before his retirement when he died in his sleep in December 1954.
By the end of that academic year, President W. Bay Irvine made the announcement that Warren G. Steel, an assistant professor of geology from North Carolina State College at Raleigh had agreed to take the helm of the department.
Steel was born in New York City on Feb. 16, 1920, to parents Andrew J. and Sophie M. Steel. He attended Erasmus Hall Preparatory School in 1939 and studied geology at the University of North Carolina from 1939-42. That year, left college to enter the U.S. Army Air Force to served as a photo-grammetrist, a role responsible for making topographical maps from aerial photographs. He reached the rank of Technical Sergeant, served in the European Theatre and earned the Presidential Unit Citation before ending his military service in 1945.
He returned to UNC and earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology by 1949. His studies also included advanced work at Oxford University. Soon after earning his degrees, he began teaching geology at his alma mater. While still earning his master’s degree, he worked in the field for the New Jersey Zinc Co. in Austinville, Va., worked as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Chapel Hill and Raleigh, N.C., and worked with the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development. He also worked as a petrographer on special mineral investigations for the Atomic Energy Commission.
When he arrived at Marietta College on Sept. 1, 1955, he quickly became an integral part of the Geology Department’s teaching staff.
“The work that we were expected to do under Professor Steel was rigorous and demanding. He wanted to prepare us for life. We spent a lot of time doing field work and probably did a field trip every month,” says former student James Speed Hensinger ’68. “The geology professors, including (Steel), took turns with the field trips. The big trip happened in the spring, around Easter.”
Within three years at Marietta, he was promoted to Associate Professor. He was selected by the National Science Foundation to participate in a summer geology institute at the University of Illinois.
“He is one of only 30 geology teachers from colleges throughout he country who have been selected to participate in the institute,” according to an article that appeared in The Marietta Times.
That summer, he brought his wife, Lucille Strada Steel, whom he married on March 27, 1943, and their two children, James and Nancy, to the institute.
Throughout his career at Marietta, he worked to build the geology program. Though he was the Chair of the Department for many years, he was finally given the full Professor title in 1963 and named the Ebenezer Baldwin Andrews Professor of Natural Science in 1972.
“We believe — and the accomplishments of our graduates back us up — that our program gives our majors the solid fundamentals they need to go on in any specialized area of geology they desire,” Steel wrote in material used to recruit new majors. “We are definitely a field-oriented department. Geology is an outdoor profession and we believe that the best laboratory geology students can have is out in the field getting their hands and feet muddy.”
After his wife died in 1979, he continued to serve as chair but ended that responsibility after the 1980-81 academic year. He took an early retirement the following year. Upon his retirement, the Board of Trustees issued a formal letter thanking him of his service to the College.
“Professor Steel was a respected member of the College faculty,” the Board of Trustees expressed in their July 2, 1982, letter. “During his long service here, he touched in significant ways the lives of many students, the hallmark of an effective educator. It is the hope of the Trustees that he will derive gratification from having served youth well.”
Sadly, Professor Emeritus Steel died on Oct. 7, 1999 in Kingwood, Texas. His ashes were interred with his late wife at Putnam Cemetery in Devola.