It’s a long way from the war-torn African country of Somalia to the relative serenity of St. Regis, Montana where Joe Steele is now Superintendent of Public Schools.
Steele has experienced both worlds. Fulfilling a long-time dream of being a U.S. Marine, Steele enlisted in 1980.
“I always wanted to be a Marine,” he said. “I joined on a delayed enlistment when I was 18, right out of high school.”
He reported to Camp Pendleton in California for basic training, after choosing aviation electronics as his service option.
“They had openings in aviation electronics at the time,” Steele said. “I ended up doing that for four years until I realized I wasn’t really mechanically inclined.”
During that schooling period, he was sent first to North Carolina, then to Okinawa in 1982. As an aviation electrician he was tasked with working on C-130 Hercules aircraft, a heavy-lift cargo plane. When it became apparent such work was not best suited for him, his Marine career took a major turn.
“They had openings in the public relations field,” Steele said. “I took a typing and writing class and was selected to be a Marine correspondent.”
His first assignment as a correspondent took him to South America aboard the USS Saginaw, a large transport ship. From there he journeyed to Africa before returning to North Carolina.
One of his next assignments landed him in Washington, D.C. where he served as a public relations specialist for the Marine Corps band.
In the early 1990s, Steele was back at sea, “bouncing from ship to ship” including time on an aircraft carrier. During that time overseas was a stop off the coast of Somalia, a country on the “horn” of Africa which had been torn apart by warlord/clan violence.
That’s where he became a radio announcer, broadcasting news and playing music to entertain troops in the region.
“I worked as an evening radio show host,” he said of the Somali experience. “I was looking for something more to do.” Somalia, he said, was a “hot and dirty place,” but he made the best of it and learned things that he passes on to this day.
“Somalia was not a choice location,” Steele said. “There was a lot of violent things going on. It has a long history of fighting (among the tribes and warlords). But when I hear students complaining about school these days, I show them pictures of Somalian students to whom we had to drop off pencils and paper just so they had something to write on.”
During his Marine career he traveled to 36 different countries before retiring after 20 years of service. Among those countries were tours of duty in Panama, Beirut, Lebanon and the Arabian Gulf. In all he served in seven areas of major conflict. He left active duty as a 20-year retiree in 1999.
From there then followed a path that led him through Northern Arizona University and eventually into the field of education, utilizing the GI Bill education benefits he had earned. His initial exposure to education was working as a custodian, where he found he liked working with students.
Originally from Michigan, Steele obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Education from Northern Arizona, followed by administrative education training from NAU and the University of Phoenix.
That path would lead him to a principal position at an elementary school, as well as a job as dean of boys at another school. He began looking around for jobs in the Northwest, influenced by his wife’s Idaho roots and the natural beauty of Montana.
That search led him to St. Regis where he was named Superintendent of Public Schools in 2014.
Looking back on his Marine career, Steele gave a simple reply when asked if he had any regrets. “Nope.”
He said the years as a Marine have helped shape a basic philosophy he credits as a major factor in the success he and his staff have experienced in St. Regis.
“I learned a leadership philosophy that focuses on mission accomplishment, taking care of those who work for you and delegating responsibility to staff,” Steele said.
Rising student test scores and a revolutionary approach to education at St. Regis are testimony to Steele’s Marine Corps values.