Charles “Bucky” Steele, the influential leader of the Tucson High Marching 100 band who spent 25 years at the podium with the Tucson Pops Orchestra, died Monday in the Tucson VA hospital’s hospice unit. He was 91 and had battled Alzheimer’s since 2007.
Steele took over the Pops Orchestra from founder Georges DeMeester, who had clocked in 25 years at the podium and was ready to dissolve the group if Steele hadn’t stepped up. Steele, with his wife, Jeanne, as his emcee, went on to build the orchestra’s financial support and audience for its “Music Under the Stars” concerts at Reid Park.
“What he did was he saved that orchestra from falling apart when he took over. It was ready to dissolve,” Steele’s successor, László Veres, said.
Steele, who was born on a ranch in rural Scottsbluff, Neb., and was raised around horses and livestock, came to Tucson in 1958 to teach band at Tucson High. It took him no time to immerse himself in Tucson’s music scene, taking jobs in any band that would have him, including the TSO, the Tucson Opera orchestra and the Flagstaff Festival Orchestra.
“His whole life was music,” Jeanne Steele said. “His first job was when he was in fifth grade with an adult band at kind of a dive in the middle of the countryside. They had the screens up so the beer bottles wouldn’t hit them.”
Steele led the Pops for 25 years before retiring in 1997 when he was 75 years old. He had a reputation for being something of a taskmaster among his musicians — from the Tucson High Marching 100 band members he led for 23 years to the professionals who moonlighted from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to play in the seasonal Pops Orchestra.
“He liked to yell,” said TSO violinist Fran Veres, László’s wife, who played in the Pops under Steele in the early 1980s. “But everybody understood it because it was a job.”
“He could quickly silence 100-plus squirrelly students as well as all our horns and drums with one certain facial expression that we all understood very well,” recalled Robin Calkins Gwozdz, whom Steele made the first female drum major at Tucson High in 1977.
But Steele always did it with humor — often biting and sharp — and rarely did students take offense, Gwozdz said in an email interview.
“He was always inspiring. He brought in other artists for us to play with, and he would give us opportunities outside our comfort zones because he knew we were excited about trying new things,” added Gwozdz’s sister, Carol Calkins, who played piccolo and flute under Steele at Tucson High and on occasion in the Pops after she graduated in 1972. “He celebrated people’s talents and their unique possibilities.”
In addition to his wife of 44 years, Steele is survived by three sons, Bruce Steele of Oklahoma, Chuck Steele of Dos Cabezas and Steve Steele of Tucson; a brother, Joe Steele of Nebraska; a sister, Ruthanne Hooper of Nebraska; and seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 11 at Northminster Presbyterian Church, 2450 E. Fort Lowell Road.
Steele was the sixth member of the Tucson Pops family to die in 2013. Dorothy Spence died in early June, and the orchestra lost its primary cheerleader and fundraiser, Dave Sitton, and musicians Richard Leek (double bass) and Rebecca Son (viola) in August. Violinist Harriet Cirzan died on Nov. 14.