CUMBERLAND — He devoted his entire career to college admissions and counseling, and as Bowdoin College President Barry Mills said in a letter to the college community, “he was a good friend to many, who was instrumental in transforming the lives of literally thousands of students.”

Richard E. Steele died Tuesday at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough after a nine-month struggle with cancer. Mr. Steele, who lived in Cumberland Foreside with his wife, Deborah C. Snite, was 71.

He was Bowdoin’s dean of admissions from 1991 to 2001, and returned to the Brunswick campus in 2005 to serve one year as acting dean of admissions.

“Dick, in many ways, was the dean of the deans of admissions. He was truly beloved,” Mills said. “He was an important voice not only on our campus, but nationwide as well.”

Mills said Mr. Steele helped to expand and diversify Bowdoin’s student population, by initiating recruiting efforts in Europe and Asia.

“He really represented the glue of our college. He was very warm, very bright, engaging and good-natured,” Mills said. “He represented the heart and soul of our campus.”

Born in Lewiston, Mr. Steele was the son of a doctor.

He graduated from Harvard in 1961 before earning his master’s degree and his doctorate in English at the University of Vermont and the University of Wisconsin, respectively.

He was heading toward a career in medicine when he came to the realization that he would rather work with young people than spend his time in a lab or a hospital, his wife said.

Snite said her husband taught English for one semester at Lisbon High School before taking a job as assistant dean of admissions at Bates in 1962.

From there, Mr. Steele went on to work for several colleges, including Carleton College in Minnesota, where he worked alongside Carleton’s president and future Bowdoin College President Robert Edwards.

Snite remembers a story that Edwards liked to tell about her husband.

Mr. Steele was interviewing a prospective Bowdoin student, but felt that the student’s skills and interest were better suited for Carleton. And he told the student as much.

The student applied to both schools, and ended up going to Carleton.

“That story epitomizes what Richard did,” Snite said. “He always did what was best for the student. He always said, ‘I have an obligation to do what’s best for these great kids.’

“I don’t think a month went by without a young person coming up to him and saying, ‘Dean Steele, you changed my life,’” his wife said.

Snite said she got an e-mail from Craig Bradley, Bowdoin’s former dean of students, who is living overseas.

“He was a magnificent human being, a humble genius, a true friend and confidant, and a devoted family man,” Bradley said.

After he retired, Mr. Steele published his first novel. “Black Out” is a CIA mystery thriller.

“He was a very good novelist, but a better dean of admissions,” said Mills, Bowdoin’s president.

Snite and Mr. Steele were married in 2006, after dating for a couple of years. “He was a remarkable man,” she said.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 22 in the Bowdoin College Chapel.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com