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"DIT" 2003 Obituary


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DITCHBURN o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-06-19 published
Principal was 'a girl's best friend'
The head of Toronto's elite girls' school raised women's issues long before the rise of feminism
By Allison LAWLOR Thursday, June 19, 2003 - Page R9
Catherine STEELE, a dedicated educator who influenced thousands of young women during her 20 years as head of Havergal College, has died at age 93.
When Miss STEELE was appointed principal of the private school for girls in North Toronto in 1952, she became its first Canadian principal. The earlier principals were British, "typical of private-school education," Miss STEELE once said. She held the position until 1972, but remained closely connected to the school long after her retirement.
Miss STEELE had a lifelong relationship with the school, being herself a Havergal "old girl." She attended from 1923 to 1928, and taught history there in the 1940s.
"She was just a remarkable woman. A woman that truly lived her values," said Susan DITCHBURN, Havergal's current principal. "She understood that schools like ours couldn't just stand still."
Considered ahead of her time, Miss STEELE was talking about women's issues during the 1930s and 1940s, long before feminism was popular. She encouraged her young female students to use their talents, and to try to make a difference in the world. She told them to be ready to take on leadership roles, at a time when men held most of the top positions.
"I believe," Miss STEELE once said, "that when we realize we are world citizens, we shall be on the road to winning the peace."
Inside the walls of Havergal, Miss STEELE was admired and feared by the girls. "She wouldn't tolerate nonsense," said her long-time friend and colleague Marcelle DEFREITAS. Yet behind the imposing presence was a quick and mischievous sense of humour. One morning, as she took her usual place at the lectern in the school's assembly hall for morning prayer, she looked down and found a dead mouse that some of the girls had left for her. She quietly picked up the mouse and scanned the room for the biology teacher. "I think this is for you," she said.
After learning that the students had given her the nickname "Stainless STEELE," she posted on her office door a magazine picture of a young girl with a mouthful of shiny new braces. The caption below the picture read: "Stainless [ STEELE] is a girl's best friend."
Catherine Irene STEELE was born in Toronto on March 31, 1910. She was the only daughter of Irene Wilson STEELE and Robert Clarke STEELE, who built up a successful seed business. She grew up with her three brothers in the affluent Forest Hill neighbourhood and was sent to Havergal in 1923.
Miss STEELE went on to study at the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Education. After graduating in the 1930s, she spent a summer travelling and then she went to teach at a private girls' school in England.
Back in Canada, she returned to Havergal, this time as a history teacher. She taught for several years there as well as at St. Clement's, another girls' school in the city. In between, she decided to further her education. After saving up enough money, she headed to New York, where she completed her master's degree at Columbia University.
At the onset of the Second World War, England was desperately short of teachers, and Miss STEELE answered the call. She boarded a ship and headed to London, where she taught in the East End during the Blitz.
She returned to Toronto after the war and found herself without work. Prospective employers often told her that, at age 35, she was just too old. Eventually she found a job at Ryerson Rehabilitation Centre, where she taught veterans.
"I never taught more eager pupils," Miss STEELE said.
Wanting to help a man who had been blinded during the war, Miss STEELE read him the entire history course. He passed.
From there, Miss STEELE went to the Royal Ontario Museum, where she headed the education department. One of her fondest memories was loading museum objects into a truck and travelling north to remote communities to bring the museum objects to children unable to visit Toronto.
While at the Royal Ontario Museum, she got a call from Havergal asking her to return, this time as principal. During her 20 years as the school's principal, Miss STEELE was a fixture.
"She was a presence that was always there," said Harriet BINKLEY, who graduated in 1972. "She lived and breathed the school."
Described as a careful, frugal woman, Miss STEELE lived on the school's campus in simple quarters. One of her rituals every night was to walk around the school making sure all the lights were turned off.
As principal, Miss STEELE made efforts to attract girls from different countries and ethnic and religious backgrounds, broadening the school beyond its Anglican roots. She also tackled inadequate staff salaries and pensions, and encouraged teachers to take leaves and pursue their education.
Miss STEELE "lived a life of service," said Reverend Kevin FLYNN, minister at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields in downtown Toronto. She encouraged others to do the same. At Havergal, she urged the girls to become involved in community organizations. She also had them evaluate the annual reports of different charities to determine which group had the greatest percentage of funds going directly to programs.
Outside Havergal, Miss STEELE sat on several boards, including the Elizabeth Fry Society. She also spent many hours at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, helping with the church's programs for the poor and homeless.
It was not uncommon to see Miss STEELE's station wagon loaded with used clothes and furniture for delivery, Reverend FLYNN said.
In honour of her lifelong work, Miss STEELE was given two honorary degrees from the University of Toronto and York University.
Miss STEELE never married nor had any children of her own. "She was too busy," Ms. DEFREITAS said.
Miss STEELE died in a Toronto hospital on April 18. She leaves her brother, Clarke Wilson STEELE.

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