The School District 2 Board of Trustees voted unanimously Monday to name a new West End school Ben Steele Middle School following a last-minute petition drive in support of Steele, a World War II veteran and longtime artist and art teacher in Billings.
It was the second straight time the school board rejected a committee recommendation for naming a new middle school. The board voted in January to name a new Heights middle school after Joseph Medicine Crow, also a World War II veteran and a Crow tribal historian, drawing criticism from some members of the public that the board had failed to follow its own selection process.
But Monday’s unanimous vote drew a standing ovation from most members of a crowd of about 65 people who attended the meeting. Supporters of Steele said they had gathered about 2,000 signatures on petitions calling for naming the school in his honor.
The vote came after trustee Joe Raffiani withdrew his motion to name the school after Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress and a key figure in winning the right to vote for women. He said that he withdrew his motion because it became obvious after discussion that the motion would fail on a 3-3 vote.
Kevin Toohill had seconded Raffiani’s vote to name the school, at 56th Street West and Grand Avenue, after Rankin. Board Chairman Greta Besch Moen also spoke in support of the motion, noting that the name selection process had narrowed the list to two possible names: Rimview Middle School and Jeannette Rankin Middle School.
A dozen speakers spoke in favor of naming the school after Steele, 97, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a teacher for 23 years at what is now Montana State University Billings. Some mentioned his military service but most emphasized his teaching career and the lessons he taught about forgiveness and reconciliation after the cruel treatment he endured during the war.
Three of the speakers were former school board members: Connie Wardell, Karen Moses and Teresa Stroebe. Wardell was the only speaker to directly speak against Rankin, citing her vote against going to war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Stroebe called Steele “a fantastic art teacher” who continues to influence hundreds of artists and art educators today. Moses said that she favored naming the school for a woman until she heard Steele’s name suggested.
“He was an ordinary, everyday human being who taught extraordinary things,” she said.
Other speakers included Shirley Steele, Steele’s wife, who said that her husband was “proud and humbled” to be considered for the honor. She said he grew up with a strong attachment to the land.
“He’s still educating people about the land through his watercolors,” she said.
County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said he had accompanied Steele on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in honor of World War II veterans.
“He survived to come back from World War II and tell his story,” he said. He also praised Rankin but said it would be better to name the school for a local person.
Other speakers praised Steele for his human decency and his ability to forgive the Japanese for his suffering during World War II.
“He’s kind of the gold standard for good people,” Al Swanson said.
One speaker called him a “true Treasure State treasure.” Another said that naming the school after him would be “a love note to a great man from Billings, Montana.”
Despite comments in the public hearing, Raffiani moved to name the school after Ms. Rankin. He argued that Rankin’s achievements have been inadequately recognized in her home state, where no school is named after her. He noted her activism for universal suffrage as a key factor in his vote.
Toohill, who took part in the meeting by phone 2,000 miles away on a family trip, said that he found the last-minute support for Steele moving and compelling and that he felt conflicted about the vote. Besch Moen said that both Steele and Rankin are “Montana icons,” but added that she is a “process person” who favored going with recommendations from the naming process.
“Do we listen to folks that have come late to the party?” she asked.
After hearing the public support for Steele, Trustee Janna Hafer, who had worked with the selection committee, said she was leaning toward Steele. She noted that both Rankin and Steele had received votes in an online community survey but said the results were suspect because online voters could cast an unlimited number of votes.
She said there was little public comment at previous meetings on naming the school.
“I wish you had shown up earlier,” she told the audience. “It would have made my life a lot easier.”