View Full Version : Former Marine Band commander has roots in foothills

09-18-09, 09:58 AM
Former Marine Band commander has roots in foothills

By Jeff Ackerman

If anyone can coordinate a visit to Grass Valley by “The President's Own” United States Marine Band, it's Orlo K. Steele (known as “OK” to his friends), a hometown boy who retired with the rank of major general in the U.S. Marine Corps after a 35-year career.

For many years, Steele was the commander of the famous orchestra that plays for presidential inaugurations. The band will play in Grass Valley Oct. 15 (read more below).

The initial contact for the band's visit “came through the Nevada Union High School Boosters Club, which had been contacted by the tour director asking if Grass Valley would be interested,” said Steele. “They, in turn, contacted the commandant of the local Marine Corps League (David Voors) back in March. He knew that I once served as commander of the Marine Barracks in Washington (D.C.), home of the Marine Corps Band, and asked if I'd take the lead on the application process.”

Steele was born in Oakland, and his father, Orlo P. Steele, was a mining engineer. The family moved to Grass Valley in the summer of 1942 when the younger Orlo was 9 years old. His father came to work for Clinch Mercantile, a wholesale mining supply company on Bennett Street.

“They supplied everything for the mines. My dad ran the office, and Downey Clinch was one of the young employees.” said Steele. “And when the mines closed, they were involved in taking a lot of the machinery and selling it for scrap.”

Clinch Mercantile eventually closed, and Steele's father opened his own hardware store, Steele Supply, in the Masonic Building where Caroline's Coffee is today.

“We had sporting goods, appliances, everything,” Steele recalled. “There was a good boom after the war ended, and then we had a recession in 1949, and my dad sold the store to his partner.”

Second time around
Steele graduated from Grass Valley High School in 1950 and went to work in the mines.

“I was a mucker,” he said. “I did that to stay in shape for football, which I planned to play at Stanford University. Tuition then was $220 per quarter, so I needed to make money all through college. I borrowed my tuition and worked all summer to help pay it off. After the mines, I worked in the timber industry, pulling chain and working the mills.”

Steele's father died just before he graduated from Stanford, and his mother went back to work at Grass Valley High, where she was in charge of attendance.

When he was preparing to graduate in 1955, Steele said he “didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn't want to do.”

He applied for the Marines' Officer Candidate School and returned home to work the mills.

“I asked the draft board not to draft me because I wanted to go into the Marines. I had always been taken by the Marines. My formative years, so to speak, came during World War II, and the campaigns were very vivid in my mind.”

But Steele wasn't accepted to Officer Candidate School.

“The letter said there were people better qualified than I was,” said Steele, “so I enlisted.”

While at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Steele's company commander convinced him to take another shot at Officer Training School.

“He said they were taking applications, and I was encouraged to try again,” he said.

That time, he made it and headed to Virginia.

“I bunked with a guy from Colgate whose father was appointed to the Supreme Court just as we were getting commissioned,” said Steele. “It was my first trip back East. Before then, the furthest east I'd ever been was Reno.”

Decorated family man
Following his initial training, Steele was assigned as an infantry officer with the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, Japan, where he served as platoon commander.

His military career résumé fills two pages, culminating with his promotion to major general in 1987 and his retirement in 1990. His many decorations include the Bronze Star, with a Combat “V” and a Combat Action ribbon from his service in Vietnam, where he served with the First Marine Division.

Following his retirement, Steele went straight to work for the federal government as head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration. Three years later, he came home to Grass Valley.

“This has always been my home of record,” Steele said. “I'm a fourth generation Californian. My great-great-grandfather was a gold-seeker.”

Married to Catharine, the Steeles have two grown children.

“My son, Orlo C. Steele, teaches at the community college in Hilo, Hawaii, and my daughter, Wendy, lives in Houston and is married with two children.”

(To contact Editor/Publisher Jeff Ackerman, e-mail jackerman@theunion.com or call 477-4299.)