Melvin Thomas Steely was known for the many accolades he earned in his life. But to his family he was known as “Daddy” — along with brother, husband and grandfather.
During Dr. Steely’s funeral in January in Carrollton, his family was joined by a host of friends and colleagues from over the years, including former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Steely, a well-liked and respected history professor at the University of West Georgia, died on Jan. 13 at the age of 79. His funeral was held at the Carrollton First United Methodist Church on Jan. 16.
All the pews were full as Steely’s sister, Elaine Marshall, delivered the eulogy. She said not a lot of people knew about his antics growing up, but his family did, and she put the crowd on notice that she was about to air a few of them.
There was the time a young Steely wanted to give his two childhood cats a bath – in the washing machine. He also thought it was a good idea to dry them on the clothes line outside.
“My granddaddy happened to be visiting with us that day, and he runs out to the yard screaming at Melvin, ‘get those cats down,’” Marshall said, adding: “Poor granddaddy has to reach up and get those cats.
They were so traumatized they about clawed him to death. And Melvin said that was the first time he’s heard his granddaddy say a bad word. What makes it worse is that my granddaddy was a Southern Baptist preacher.”
He was such a good brother, she said. They both started at what was then called West Georgia College together; she as a student, he as a teacher.
Whenever she had a history assignment, she would go over to his house and sit on his porch. He would tell her the story behind the history lessons. The background of the people, places and things that were going in the lesson.
“He just absolutely made history come alive for me and all of his students,” she said. “That’s why I regret not taking one of his classes because I knew he was a brilliant, brilliant teacher.”
Steely’s knowledge and teaching also influenced his eldest grandson, Patrick Campbell. Campbell studied theology in college because of Steely’s influence in his life. Campbell also sang a solo at his funeral.
His grandfather taught locally at the college, but he also headed up Bible study and Sunday school. One of the things he would speak with Campbell about is theology and the importance of being a free thinker.
Campbell said Steely taught him to find the best examples that you can in people, and mirror that in their own lives.
“To me, he’s a fatherfigure, in more ways than one. He really held our family together. He was the glue that took care of everyone,” he said.
He was the kind of person that put love before anything else in his life, Campbell said.
“We just knew him as Daddy. We knew he did all these things. We knew he was important and did all these things. You know – he’s just Daddy,” his daughter Bonnie Vernon said.
His other daughter, Karen Campbell, said to her his greatest accomplishment was being a father. She said he was such a strong, devoted and unconditionally loving figure. To her, he’ll always be “Daddy.”
Gingrich, former U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House, first met Steely when he came to West Georgia College, and over the past 49 years became a good friend, adviser and, at times, a mentor to Gingrich.
Gingrich flew to Carrollton for the day to eulogize his old friend.
“We would travel together day after day in the (U.S. House) campaign. He knew so much about west Georgia. Whether it was Cedartown, Newnan, he was just invaluable. He was a genuine companion,” Gingrich said.
Steely worked with Gingrich on his campaigns and helped get him elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and then became an aide to Gingrich for 13 years. Steely was chosen as Gingrich’s biographer and archive curator for UWG’s Georgia Political Heritage Program, a collection of recorded interviews of many of the state’s political leaders, many of whom Steely interviewed himself.
He said he became close friends with Steely because Steely cared about others, was a good listener — and they both had a mutual interest in politics.
“He immersed himself in being my adviser. I think it’s possible without Mel’s help, I would not have become a congressman and I would not have become speaker. He was that big a difference,” Gingrich said.
Former University of West Georgia President and professor Beheruz Sethna expressed his admiration and respect for Steely during Wednesday’s service.
Sethna recalled a time he had to act as a “geek translator” for Steely when he was having computer problems. He came over to help Steely, and was able to get his email working after three months.
Sethna remembers exclaiming that Steely had over 700 emails, to which Steely replied, not to worry about it; 500 of them were probably from Sethna.
During his eulogy, Sethna also read emails UWG faculty had sent after hearing of Steely’s death.
Lecturer Sandra Pollard said she remembered when she got her degree and didn’t know what to do afterward. She said Steely brought her back to the university and put her on the track that led her to later become a university instructor.
She said her life wouldn’t be the same without him.
University professor Robert Sanders said he will always remember their conversations because, despite their differences, their discussions were always provocative and fun.
Blynne Olivieri, head of Special Collections at Ingram Library, said Steely helped her visit her dying father. She remembers one day where Steely came into her office and asked her what was wrong. She told him about her father, and he offered to help manage the archive so she could go visit him before he died.
“You just don’t forget that about a person,” she said.
Over the course of his career, Steely received many awards and accomplishments across the spectrum of academics and politics.
Steely earned his Doctorate from Vanderbilt University and in 1964 began teaching Modern European and German History at West Georgia College.
He was the local and state president of the American Association of University Professors and also was a lobbyist for over 20 years for the Georgia American Association of University Professors. He received the Sumberg Award and the Warren Akin IV Award while he was involved with the American Association of University Professors.
The Sumberg award is given to people who are effective at lobbying higher education issues and furthering state lobbying efforts. The Akin award is given to someone who has done a special service to education and the principle of academic freedom, according to the association.
Steely was also the president for the Southeast region of The Historical Society, and was the director of The Georgia Political Heritage Program that he founded in 1985.
“Mel did that to really document the immense amount that Georgia politicians were really contributing to form our nation and to form a stronger state of Georgia,” Olivieri said of The Georgia Political Heritage Program.
She said Steely’s political-insider knowledge helped draw out stories and nuances in the oral history interviews that are part of the program. She said no one could replicate Steely when it came to conducting oral histories.
“Those interviews help show the intersections between people and the issues and how sort of the sausage gets made in Georgia politicking,” she said.
Note: This story was forwarded courtesy of the Carrolton TimesGeorgian. We thank them for their approval to share this story with our readers.
To me, he’s a father-figure, in more ways than one. He really held our family together. He was the glue that took care of everyone
Dr. Mel Steely was a well-liked and respected history professor at University of West Georgia. Steely died in January in Carrollton.