Longtime animal welfare advocate and the guiding force behind Alexandria's state-of-the-art animal shelter, John Patrick Steele, 72, Col., USAF (Ret) died peacefully at his home, 1506 Chapel Hill Drive, Alexandria, on March 14 as a result of complications from frontal temporal lobe dementia exacerbated by a recent stroke.
Known to his many friends and associates as "Jack," he was well known throughout Alexandria for his many years of volunteer work on behalf of animals and his service as both a Board member and eventual President of the Alexandria Animal Welfare League. He held the later position from the mid 1980s until his retirement in 2001.
His service with the League began when he took a wounded sparrow to the Alexandria shelter, then located on South Payne Street. He saw volunteers walking dogs and aiding with their care which inspired him to also volunteer.
When he saw the deteriorating condition of the shelter he made it his personal mission to not only build a new shelter but also to make that shelter something that would be a model for others to emulate. On June 15, 2002, his dream became a reality with the dedication of the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter on Eisenhower Avenue. It was named for Alexandria's former city manager, who played a critical role in bringing Steele's dream to fruition. A part of the property was designated the "Jack Steele Dog Exercise Area" to reflect his dedication to and love for dogs of which he adopted many over the years.
"Jack Steele was a hero for all those who cared about animals in Alexandria. He gave of not only his time but his money and concern for animals," said Vola Lawson.
That assessment was buttressed by City Councilwoman Redella "Del" Pepper, who was the lead proponent on City Council in Steele's effort to build a new shelter. "He was the force behind getting the new animal shelter. He kept alerting Council, and particularly me, that we desperately needed a new shelter," Pepper said.
"The one on Payne Street was literally falling down. He kept our feet to the fire and kept us focused even when he was kidded by others about his "dog pound." Working with him gave me the opportunity to see first hand his dedication and commitment," she said.
Combining his dedication with his personality and charm, Steele formed countless friendships and won the admiration and support of City officials for his cause. He built a strong coalition of government officials, animal lovers, and humane organizations that resulted in the League gaining the contract in 1988 to operate the shelter, according to fellow Board members.
"His dedication elevated the Alexandria Animal Welfare League to national status," said Kate Pullen, executive director of the shelter during Steele's tenure as president of the Board. Pullen now directs a shelter in New Orleans, LA.
"There are things I learned from Jack that has allowed me to move up the ladder professionally in my chosen field of animal welfare. He gave me skills that I did not have in an arena that I was not familiar with. And, they have served me well," Pullen said.
BUT THERE WAS another side to Jack Steele. That was Col. John Patrick Steele, pilot, United State Air Force, who flew 200 night missions totaling 500 hours at low altitude over the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" during the Vietnam War to report supply movements by the Viet Cong and call in air strikes.
He had to place colored markers along the trail to guide the air strikes. That brought him under heavy anti-aircraft fire that brought down other aircraft.
For his bravery under fire he was awarded the Distinguish Flying Cross and the Air Medal. Steele flew his last combat mission May 2,1969.
Other assignments took him behind the Soviet Union's "Iron Curtain" ferrying ambassadors and VIP's throughout Europe as well as the Middle East, Africa and Southwest Asia. His Air Force career also included a harbinger of what was to come in his life after his military career.
As a young pilot, Steele flew the chimpanzee "Ham" back from the Caribbean where he had landed in a space capsule prior to America's first manned space flight in a similar spacecraft. Unbeknownst to "Ham," he was in the very good hands of a true animal lover while in Steele's aircraft.
Upon his return to the United States from his Vietnam assignment, Steele was assigned to the Pentagon, where the highlight of his career in Washington was working in the office of the Air Force Chief of Staff which earned him the Legion of Merit.
Following retirement from the military, Steele continued to live in Alexandria and became active in the Animal Welfare League. His leadership of that organization increased its coffers substantially by initiating numerous special events for pet owners and a host of fund raising activities. He also lead the League in increasing adoptions and broadening its educational outreach programs.
During Steele's League presidency, it began what has become an Alexandria St. Patrick's Day celebration tradition — the Fun Dog Show, co-sponsored by another of Steele's passions, The Ballyshaners. Ensuing years brought Canine Games, the Doggie Bone Hunt and Easter Parade, as well as numerous other events for dog owners and their pets.
HIS MOTHER'S PARENTS were born in Ireland, and during the five years prior to his death he traveled to the Emerald Isle three times with his companion Linda Willen and his brother, Charles J. Steele, to visit the ruins of his grandparents' homes.
During those five years, and after being diagnosed with frontal temporal lobe dementia, Jack Steele suffered from serious language loss caused by the disease. Aware that he had dementia, he struggled daily with grace to compensate for the losses it was causing.
With the help of his friends Willen, Millie Bobbitt, Genney Bowden, Dave and Joyce Dexter, Hilda Williams, and his family, he managed to continue to enjoy life, animals and nature by taking long walks each day and dining with his circle of companions.
"Jack was a wonderful friend to me for over 20 years. He always showed great love and care for animals throughout all those years," Bobbitt said.
That was echoed by Joyce Dexter. "Jack was a wonderful friend with a big heart and a generous spirit. All of us who were privileged to know him will long remember his devotion to the friends he valued and the animals he loved," she said.
A native of Scranton, PA, Steele graduated from Georgetown University and received his master's degrees from Southern Michigan University and the University of Southern California. In addition to Willen and his brother, he leaves behind three nephews: Charles, John and Jim Steele; two nieces, Helen Steele and Maura Bobinski; nine grand-nephews and nieces; and his friend of many years Millie Bobbit. His marriage to Kathy O'Donnell ended in divorce.
A memorial service will be held at his Alexandria home on Friday, March 30, commencing at 2 p.m. Interment will be in the family plot in St. Catherine's Cemetery outside Scranton. Donations can be made in his name to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, 4101 Eisenhower Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22304.