Ronald Steele, 80, professor emeritus of music, of Amherst, died Feb. 25 at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, following a long illness.
Born in Montclair, N.J., he began the two artistic pursuits that would exist side by side throughout his life, when he picked up a violin and a camera for the first time. After 20 lessons, he gave his first public performance on the violin and conducted his first orchestra at the age of 11. As a teen, he performed extensively in New Jersey and New York, and was a winner on the “Original Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” At the same time, he worked in a commercial darkroom, photographed weddings for one of the premier portrait studios in the metropolitan area, and photographed for the Montclair Times.
He spent many summers attending the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich., where he studied violin with Ottokar Chadek, and while studying conducting with Clyde Roller and Orien Dalley, he became the youngest conductor of the Michigan Youth Symphony. While at Interlochen, he also worked as a staff photographer. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in music, he spent four years playing with the Air Force Symphony Orchestra and the Strolling Strings in Washington, D.C.
Following his military service, he became a teaching fellow at the University of Michigan where he studied violin, earning a graduate degree in violin performance, and also studied conducting pedagogy.
He was brought to UMass by Doric Alviani in 1963, where he founded the University Symphony Orchestra. He studied conducting with Max Rudolf at Tanglewood, and conducted many orchestras during the 1960s, including district and all-state orchestras, and professional orchestras in Kansas, Michigan and New York.
During the 1970s, at the request of former student Tom Parker, Steele turned his popular introductory music course into a nationally syndicated radio show, “The Listening Room,” which won FM radio’s highest prize, the Armstrong Award. Subsequently, he founded the Five College Chamber Soloists, which went on to perform in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. He returned to playing violin and viola, playing string quartets and serving as concertmaster for many local groups including Valley Light Opera, the Keene Chorale and the Natick Choral Society. He also served as choir director at churches in Washington, D.C., Long Island, and locally at the First Baptist Church and Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst.
In 1978, while still teaching at the university, he rekindled his early interest in portraiture and wedding photography with the opening of the award-winning Ron Steele Photography Studio. After his retirement in 1998, he had numerous exhibitions of his work, including showings of his elegant black and white portraits of artists and musicians, and later his digital works specializing in macrophotography in nature.
He leaves his wife of 38 years, Marilyn Dyer Steele, a son Gordon of Reston, Va., and two grandchildren.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, earmarked for the music program, or the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society in Leverett.