In memoriam: Pete Steffens, 1924 - 2012

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sivan Steffens remembers vividly the day she asked her dad about priorities. She was 10, maybe 11, and tucked into the dinner table with her sister, Daneet, and her parents Pete and Ella.

“Different people have different things that are most important to them,” her dad told her. “And they make their decisions in life, they organize their lives, around those important things.”

Sivan, beginning in her own life to feel the pressures of adolescence, of having eventually to make her own decisions, pressed for more.

“How do you know what your priorities are?”

“Well, that’s something you have to figure out for yourself.”

But Sivan, looking for a solid answer she could begin to shape her young life around, craved something simple.

“Dad, what are your priorities? What’s most important to you?”

“Well, that’s easy,” he told her. “People.”

Pete Steffens, father, husband, journalist, teacher and, yes, a people person, passed away on Aug. 23 in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He was 87.

In his life, Steffens was many things. He was a father, the fun-loving sort who’d play Pink Floyd as bedtime music and laugh every bit as much as his kids while horsing around in the swimming pool.

He was a son, born to famed journalists Ella Winter and Lincoln Steffens (one of the first “muckrakers”) and growing up among author John Steinbeck, photographer Edward Weston and dancer Jean Erdman.

He was a husband, first for nearly 30 years to Ella Steffens, whom he met while working as a journalist in the Middle East in 1956, and then to Valerie Alia, whom he met at Western in 1996.

He was a journalist and teacher, helping Gerson Miller and R.E. "Ted" Stannard found Western’s journalism department in 1976. He retired as a journalism professor emeritus after 27 years at the university.

No matter what he did, Steffens found time to enjoy life. It was his core.

One of his favorite jokes, as relayed by his daughter Sivan, sums his philosophy:

Q: Why do Time & Space exist?

A: Time, so that everything doesn't happen all at once; space…so that it doesn't ALL happen to you.

At Western, his home for nearly 30 years, his first love was teaching, says Stannard, who urged a reluctant Steffens to lighten his teaching load to become the department’s first chair -- briefly, and only acting -- in 1976.

“He brought a sharp intellect and probing mind to his journalism history classes and a special bent for meaningful storytelling to his writing classes,” Stannard says. “He lectured with off-beat insights, dry humor and a narrative approach that made telling points.”

Western alumna R. Nina Ruchirat, now a senior content project manager at Microsoft, calls Steffens a beloved mentor and friend.

“He was always somehow able to very effectively imprint wisdom upon me while making it seem like it was my own idea,” she says. “He always showed honest diplomacy toward his students and delivered forthright (and very funny) sauciness about things that perturbed him.”

Patti Jones, whose first journalism class at Western was from Steffens in 1974, remembers a tough teacher hell-bent on helping her improve.

“On the first exercise -- about a student-parking protest -- I eked out two paragraphs pocked with typos and inaccuracies,” she says. “Pete penned a big, fat ‘F’ atop the page and added a short note: ‘Patti, did you panic? See me, please…You’re clearly very articulate…Relax.’”

On her second assignment, about a mob killing in Rhode Island, Steffens scrawled similar words of encouragement, if not a much better grade. Next to the big ‘D,’ Steffens wrote “a great leap forward!”

Jones, now a faculty member in the journalism department at Shoreline Community College, continues:

You might think I’d trash these papers in embarrassment. Instead, I’ve carried them with me for decades, as I’ve moved through reporting jobs and journalism-teaching jobs in Seattle, Hong Kong and New York City. The truth is, I’ve treasured these papers not just because they trace my slow-but-steady progress as a new reporter, but also because they reveal the techniques of a consummate teacher. On each page, there’s Pete, delivering the bad news while cheering me on -- always finding something positive to say about my work: “Excellent paragraphing…Most names are spelled correctly… You wrote your version clearly….”

I finally did get an ‘A’ on a timed story that first quarter (“Exactly! Patti-wow!”) and I did eventually go on to a fulfilling career in journalism. For that, I thank Pete (and the masterful Ted Stannard).

Alumnus Craig M. Stephens, in a Facebook post honoring Steffens, remembers a similar approach.

“Pete had a subtle system of nudges and bumps he would use to motivate or guide you through a project,” Stephens says. “I learned so much about myself from him.”

Steffens’ essence was that of a man who cared, whether about people across the world or in the office next door.

“He was gentle, soft-spoken and friendly, treating both faculty and students as colleagues and fellow seekers after ideas and insights,” Stannard says. “He was a humane social activist and champion of the disadvantaged.”

Every person, Steffens felt, was just that: a person.

“What I learned from my dad, partly by osmosis, was that everyone has a story to tell,” says Daneet Steffens, a journalist and editor who also teaches at Sunderland University in the United Kingdom. “Your job as a journalist was to listen to that story. And that while it was crucial to be able to report a story objectively, it was also really important to capture the human aspect of the story as well.”

Steffens was genuinely interested in those stories.

“Woe betide whoever he sat next to on a plane,” Daneet Steffens says. “By the time the landing wheels emerged, he would know their life story -- personal, professional, political, philosophical -- inside and out. He loved engaging people in conversation and told terrible -- and terribly funny -- jokes.”

If you knew Steffens, at some point you received from him a carefully selected greeting card -- perfect for you, perfect for the occasion -- perhaps stuffed with press clippings and photographs that, maybe or maybe not, related to a recent conversation you and he had shared.

You also knew that you mattered. You knew that despite what you may have thought of yourself, here was a man who truly cared about you and listened -- really listened -- to what you had to say. And by the time you were done talking, he was ready with deep insight -- and, of course, a joke -- that helped you see things in a new light.

“His sage advice and wonderful stories have guided me through the years,” says Ruby Quemuel, a former student of Steffens’. “In that way, he's helped me be where I am today, which is a much better and happier place in my life had I not met Pete.”

Steffens was born in San Remo, Italy, on Nov. 21, 1924, and grew up in Carmel, Calif.

He was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1943, and he served for three years.

He studied at Harvard University and Oxford University’s Balliol College in addition to further studies in Florence, Italy, and at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

He was on the rowing team at Oxford. While in Florence, he qualified for the Italian Olympic swim team.

He began his journalism career as a copy boy on the San Francisco Chronicle in the summer of 1952 and worked for Reuters News Agency in London and the Middle East, Time magazine and other publications and broadcast media in the United States. His work was published in Time Magazine, San Francisco Examiner, The Christian Science Monitor, Collier’s Magazine and Ramparts Magazine, for which he wrote a front-page profile on Charlie Chaplin. For Collier’s Magazine, he wrote feature profiles on Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir.

It was in the Middle East that he met Ella, with whom he eventually had daughters Daneet and Sivan. To support his growing family, Steffens turned from producing journalism to teaching it, taking a job at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught from 1961 to 1969.

“What started as a stopgap to pay the bills turned into a lifelong passion,” says Valerie Alia, Steffens’ second wife. “He discovered that he loved teaching. He loved the stimulation of classroom discussion and repartee, loved advising student publications. Most of all, he loved the students.”

At Berkeley, Steffens influenced and supported students who founded the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Mario Savio, chief among them, named one of his sons for Pete, Alia says.

Steffens also taught at Columbia University in in New York during the summer of 1969. From 1970 to 1971, Steffens was literary editor of the journal New Outlook in Tel Aviv, Israel. He came to Western in 1972, where he taught until 1999.

As a professor, Steffens taught the importance of journalists having an understanding of history, culture and language. He also held in high esteem the value of civil discourse, says Western journalism associate professor Carolyn Dale, who taught with Steffens beginning in the late ’70s.

“Civil conversation among opposing views was the highest expression of not just good manners, but also of intellect and education,” Dale says. “I think he felt that this was journalism's main goal in supporting and furthering democracy.”

He also personally knew a great many prominent writers and journalists, bringing many of them to campus to speak to students and the public. Once it was Jessica Mitford, who had just published the best-selling book "Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business" criticizing American prisons. Another time it was New York Post and The Nation writer I.F. Stone, known as one of America’s greatest investigative journalists.

“He was an excellent teacher and had a very good sense about dealing with students,” says Lyle Harris, a Western journalism professor who taught with Steffens beginning in the mid-’70s. “What greater compliment can you give a professor?”

Steffens met Valerie Alia, his second wife, in 1996, three days after she arrived at Western to take up the distinguished professorship in Canadian culture. They married two years later and, after Steffens’ retirement in 1999, spent eight years in the United Kingdom, where Steffens wrote and gave public talks on history and politics while Alia taught in Sunderland and Leeds. In 2008, the couple moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

In addition to his work at Western, Steffens also worked with the Lummi and Nooksack tribes to encourage higher education and journalism studies by Native American students. He taught briefly at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation.

“Pete did invaluable service by reaching out to the writers and editors at the Indian reservations in the area,” Dale says. “I vividly remember the day when Western hosted a couple dozen journalists from the reservation media here on campus, and how important that gathering was to them, many of whom had not met each other before.”

A scholarship for First Nations students, first proposed by Alia as a way to ensure a journalism education is available to those talented students, is being set up in Steffens’ name with the Western Foundation. Visit the foundation’s website to donate to the Pete Steffens Native American Scholarship Fund. Donations also may be sent to WWU Foundation, MS 9034, 516 High St., Bellingham, WA 98225-9034. When mailing payment, please make checks payable to the Western Foundation and note the name of the fund on the memo line. Alia is requesting scholarship contributions in lieu of flowers.

At the time of his death, Steffens was completing a book of memoirs and helping to research a film on his father's life. He leaves his wife, Valerie Alia, of Nanaimo, B.C.; his first wife, Ella Steffens, of Bellingham; his daughters Daneet Steffens, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, and Sivan Steffens, of Seattle; stepbrother Donald Stewart, of Rome, son of Donald Ogden Stewart; stepsons David Restivo and Dan Restivo and step-granddaughter Mary Margaret Hope-Restivo, of Toronto.

“I remember he told me once that if I used the word ‘unique’ once in my entire career that would be enough,” says former student Ina Smith Zajac, in a Facebook post remembering Steffens. “I have never used it in a story. Ever. Not once. Pete Steffens was unique.”

Pete Steffens and Valerie Alia. Photo from Pete Steffens' Facebook page
Pete Steffens in front of the Humanities Building on the WWU campus. Photo courtesy of WWU University Archives and Records Center
Pete Steffens with his first wife, Ella, at Berkeley. Photo courtesy of Sivan Steffens
Pete Steffens and his second wife, Valerie Alia, at the Bellingham marina. Photo courtesy of Ted Stannard
Pete Steffens at The Western Front's annual picnic in 1976. Photo courtesy of Ted Stannard
Pete Steffens, at left, with (back row, left to right) daughter Daneet, wife Ella and daughter Sivan. Seated are the Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, Steffens' stepfather, and Steffens' mother, Ella Winter, in London in 1979. Pho
Pete Steffens and his step-granddaughter, Mary Margaret. Photo courtesy of Valerie Alia
Pete Steffens, visible in the lower right corner, is shown covering for Time magazine a 1960 rally addressed by Nobel chemistry prizewinner and peace activist Dr. Linus Pauling. Photo courtesy of Robert Carl Cohen, with whom Steffens was friends for nearl
Pete "Trust me, I'm a reporter" Steffens wearing one of his trademark funny T shirts. Photo courtesy of Sivan Steffens.
Pete Steffens, left, and Ted Stannard. The two helped co-found the journalism department at Western in 1976. Photo courtesy of Western associate journalism professor Tim Pilgrim
Pete Steffens in 2008. Photo courtesy of Western associate journalism professor Tim Pilgrim