By Sean Fitz-Gerald
You may have seen him hurriedly shuffling down the hallways. If you are a regular reader of this paper, you’ve seen his picture at least once a month. And if you’ve ever been stuck waiting to pay your fees across from the Ryerson Students’ Administrative Council (RyeSAC) office, you may have even seen him scurry nervously around his office in a pair of khakis and thick wool sweater. David Steele, the articulate, soft-spoken RyeSAC president, is seen by many, but truly known by the very few.
I’ve spoken with Steele in his office, I was in the Ram in the Rye when he celebrated his victory over the four other presidential candidates. I’ve even ended several pub nights reflecting his glance of woe when last call was announced. But I cannot say I know the man who runs the organization students’ pay more than $890,000 annually to fund.
Over the holidays, I decided to drive out to Steele’s hometown of Stratford and try to find out if he is the straight-laced, mature-beyond-his-years guy that he appears to be.
I pulled into his driveway around 2:30 p.m. about two and a half hours after I began my drive from the Ryerson Parklade.
Steele greeted me at the door and invited me inside. He was dressed in blue jeans a flannel shirt. He seemed relaxed and his blue eyes were a little brighter than I remembered seeing them in his office not two weeks earlier. He feels comfortable here. This is home.
Steele is standing on the precipice of adolescence as he bounds down the stairs of his parents’ modest two-level west-end Stratford home. He greets a couple at the front door and leads them up to their room. It is the summer, and the Stratford festival has brought its annual bounty of tourists looking for an affordable bed and breakfast to call home while they sample the Shakespearean atmosphere of the town.
The couple gives Steele a small tip and enters their room. In his excitement, he again bounds down the stairs and into the family room to showcase his windfall. There is a makeshift divider in the centre of the room. Steele crosses the temporary wall to see his mother stretching his ailing father’s arms across his chest and back. She is trying to loosen the built-up phlegm in her husband’s chest, to ease the pain of his terminal emphysema. His father died in 1987. Steele was only 14.
Steele was born in Scotland and lived there until he was 10, when his father’s motorcycle repair shop started having financial trouble. The Steele family, David, his father, mother and older brother Paul, settled in Stratford in 1984.
Shortly after their arrival, Steele’s father was diagnosed with emphysema, leaving his wife to fend for the family.
“For four and a half years I was under house arrest,” says Steele’s mother, Helen. “I couldn’t leave my husband alone because he was in rough shape.”
As well as caring for her husband and two young children, she began running a bed and breakfast to make ends meet. She said her youngest son, however, was always a bright spot during the stormy first years in Stratford.
“He’s always brought much laughter to the household,” she says. He’s always been sort of the clown.”
Helen says she started putting a photo collage of her two boys together three years ago but never finished David’s because, “in all the pictures he’s doing something. He just can’t sit there and have a picture taken of him.”
The faint smell of Christmas turkey still hung in the air as Steele and I prepared to leave for a guided tour of his old stomping grounds.
As we were walking out the front door, Helen offered to make a pot of coffee, and then invited me to stay for dinner. I was surprised by her hospitality, but politely refused as we walked onto the slushy driveway towards Steele’s car.
The first stop we made in his mom’s car, a used greyish-silver ’86 Mercury Topaz, was at Steele’s alma mater, Stratford Central Secondary School.
Overlooking a grass hill on the first floor of Stratford Central lies the school’s cafeteria. Things are normal. The room is being swept with waves of students’ voices as they eat their lunch, play euchre, and generally socialize. Suddenly, there is a momentary silence as student body president David Steele enters the dining area driving a golf cart. He smiles as bursts of amazed laughter echo around him while he calmly exists the doors on the opposite side of the room. He’s hungry, and on his way to the local McDonald’s drive-thru.
Steele was the Audio-Visual club president here for five years, including when he was the student council president in his OAC year.
“He was such a geek,” says Joel Silver, Steele’s best friend in high school. “But he was the most popular guy in the school.”
Silver says that it was Steele’s off-the-wall personality that endeared him to the rest of the school. Not to mention the fact that he threw kick-ass parties when his mom was away.
“He was an enigmatic guy,” Silver says. “Dave should have been, for all intents and purposes, the least popular guy in the school, but he was such a great guy.”
Steele says that he wanted to become president primarily because of the school’s lack of spirit.
“I just thought it was pathetic,” he says. “I know it sounds really cheesy, and it is really cheesy, but it’s all about that wanting to make a difference thing.”
During his tenure as president, Steele’s initiatives included; running “home-room bingo” during the morning announcements, having a “word of the day,” and using different voices and accents to read the morning messages.
However, his crowning achievement was convincing the rest of the council to spend $400 to buy a golf cart for the school.
“He just got it into his head that he wanted a golf cart,” says Silver, who was social convenor on the council. “It wasn’t an economic idea, but Dave wanted it for his own amusement.”
Silver says Steele’s attitude made him a perfect fit for the leadership role. “He represented us all because he didn’t give a fuck about authority,” he says. “It was all about fun.”
As a teenager growing up in a town of only 29,834, there wasn’t usually a whole lot to do after school. Silver says that drinking was usually high on the list of weekend entertainment.
Steele agrees that activities for young folk in such a small town were scarce. He says you had to be creative to enjoy yourself.
One local pastime was something called “souvie runs.” The object of this game was to sneak onto a person’s lawn and steal a gnome or other garden decorations. Another favourite was when tourists asked to have their picture taken. The fun part came when the photo was framed in such a way that the people’s heads were cut off. Or when a tourist was snapping a picture, to bend over and make sure your butt was in their viewfinder.
After walking around his old school for about 10 minutes, we decide it’s getting a little too cold and get back in his car. We head for the safe confines of a local pub.
As we sit down inside one of Stratford’s more popular hangouts, Bentley’s. I offer Steele a cigarette which he pleasantly declines.
“No thanks, I just smoked my face off here last night,” he says.
Steele, who is a social smoker, even though he’s asthmatic, looks more relaxed and rural than usual. He tells me that he smoked a pack last night when he and a group of his old high school friends were here drinking. He didn’t get home until 3 a.m.
Bentley’s is located on Ontario St., within a strip of small shops and bars in the heart of the town. Steele says he spent most of his youth in this place. We walk in the back entrance and pass through a wood-paneled hallway that leads us to the seating area. There are four people gathered around a back-corner table talking, while four more play darts across the room. At the bar, there is a small group of people watching Doug Flutie and the Buffalo Bills playing New Orleans. Five feet from the bar, a man is reading a thick novel by the dim light hanging above him. Steele leads the way and we sit down by the windows as the front of the pub.
“My theory is that they’ve placed a magnet under this place, because everyone always ends up here,” Steele says.
The Ram in the Rye is packed. This chilly Thursday evening is more than just pub night, it is election night. The candidates for all four executive positions are here, mingling with reporters and supporters alike. However, presidential candidate David Steele is nowhere to be seen. Steele helped turn this once dark and depressing basement into the campus hotspot, and rarely, if ever, misses a chance at pouring beer down his gullet.
Steele appears only minutes before the executive election results are posted. He appears bleary-eyed and very nervous, a condition not aided by the fact that he polished half a bottle of scotch off in his office to quell his rampaging nerves.
When the final tally is listed on the white Bristol board hanging on the wall, Steele breaks down and begins to sob. He beat runner-up Steven Wright by more than 100 votes.
Steele wanted to come to Ryerson because he felt it had the best program for what he wanted to do, theatre technical production.
“I always she he would do something that involved switches, bulbs, buttons and lights,” Helen says. “He’s had a mania for switches since he was an infant.”
Steele settled into university life quickly, but a bad experience with a staff advisor in high school (“she was a bitter woman”) made him wary of student politics.
However, Steele became head of his theatre course union and slowly worked his way up the ranks at RyeSAC.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy it, I love it,” he says. “It’s an incredible amount of fun and it’s really interesting being part of the process that can facilitate change.”
He has been a part of many successes as a member of the RyeSAC board. As v.p. administration last year, and president this year, Steele has seen the Ram in the Rye become a success, and was on the winning side of the student campus centre referendum.
“I think he’s the best president RyeSAC has ever had,” says last year’s president Angelo DeLuca. “He’s a very dedicated person, he does everything for the students.”
However, Steele is not infallible. Plans for his main project, the student campus centre, have become bogged down in meetings and are falling behind schedule.
John McGowan, last year’s v.p. finance, says Steele can get wound up sometimes when the going gets rough.
“When he’s pretty frantic, good luck getting a word in edgewise because it’s his way or the highway,” the business management graduate says. “When he peaks out, he’s pretty eccentric.”
“At the time he was doing elections, you could see things were starting to wear on him, he was getting edgy,” he says.
Btu this year’s v.p. administration, Jason Power, says Steele works well under pressure.
“People usually go to him for things,” Power says. “He has the ability to show people how to come to a resolution on their problems.”
Steele is sitting in Silver’s room at York University. The new remake of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is being released in theatres tonight. Steele looks at Silver and asks, “Joel, are you gay?” Silver is studying music at York, so his residence falls in an area where there is a high ratio of gays. He gives a long, thoughtful answer. In the end, after some 15 minutes, he tells Steele that he is not. Steele responds with, “Shut up Joel. That’s great. Because I am.”
Steele says university is important for young people because it gives them a chance to expand who they are, to, as the cliché goes, “find themselves.”
In university, Steele finally reveals something he’s know for a long time. He is gay.
“When you go away, you get to redefine yourself and what you can and what you want to do. I think that’s what I needed to do,” he says.
Although he knew he was gay since childhood, he didn’t come out of the closet until his second year at Ryerson.
“There’s no point in making people uncomfortable, what’s that going to gain?” he asks. “It’s certainly not going to educate somebody and make them accept it better if they’re not ready to.”
When Steele told his mother, at a family wedding, she says she wasn’t surprised.
“I had suspected David was gay since high school,” she says. “I would ask him if there was a school dance and if he was taking anyone and he would get angry at me.”
“When he did come out to me, I knew what he was going to say before he said it. But he’s the same kid I loved before, nothing has changed.”
As dusk begins to fall on Stratford, I tell Steele that I have to get going. He reaches into his wallet, pays for his meal and my coffee and we leave.
When we reach his house, he asks me if I would like to stay for dinner, since it was going to be a long ride home. I politely decline because I was scared the weather could take a turn for the worse. I thank him for the tour and tell him that I’ll see him when the next semester begins.
As I let my 11-year-old Toyota Corrola warm up, I catch Steele watching. When he sees my glance, he smiles and calmly walks into his house and closes the door.