MISSION FIRST: Leading From The Front




Dec. 23, 2013

by Ryan Yanoshak

Gary Steele is still using the skills he learned during his time at West Point and as an officer in the United States Army. Now retired after a military and business career, Steele serves as a consultant and still falls back on the foundation set while at the U.S. Military Academy.

A three-year letterwinner as a tight end on the Army football team, Steele is a member of West Point's Class of 1970. He retired as a colonel after a military career that spanned 23 years. He utilized his military training in the business world before his civilian retirement and was elected to the Army Sports Hall of Fame in May 2013.

While he still consults on a few projects, Steele is enjoying his retirement. It allows him a chance to watch his daughter, Sage, an ESPN SportsCenter anchor, follow the Baltimore Ravens where his son, Chad, works in the Media Relations Department, track his son, Courtney, a fashion model or spend time with his four grandchildren.

The son of an Army veteran, Steele entered West Point following a year at a preparatory school in New York. He faced the usual struggles that most "Plebes" have to overcome and then starred on the football field where he was West Point's first African-American letterwinner in the sport of football.

"I was aware of being the first, but it didn't have a major impact on me," says Steele. "And it was because of the way I was raised. I was born in New York City, went to Germany where the services were integrated, spent time in Japan and then went to Fort Dix, N.J., in a military environment. It was a very multi-cultural experience. At West Point, we were all out there having fun. For me, I didn't really give it that much thought; I was trying to beat out one of my football teammates. I happened to be the one in the queue when the military and West Point made its decision. If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else."

Steele was all set to accept a scholarship to Penn State University after a standout career at Woodrow Wilson High School in Levittown, Pa., before a coach showed up at his school and talked about West Point. Steele had seen the show "Men of West Point," and was intrigued enough to explore. His father, Maj. Frank Steele, was a Buffalo Soldier who served his first duty station at West Point. Steele decided to spend a prep year at Manlius and complete the application process to West Point.

"What I remember most about my Academy experience was the camaraderie," says Steele. "We are all in the same pot together. We learned rather quickly it was all about the team. It wasn't about you, it was about teamwork. "

Steele, who still remains close friends with former teammates and classmates, caught 25 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns in his first season in 1966, posted 14 receptions for 269 yards and a pair of scores as a junior and capped his career with a team-high 27 catches for 496 yards and three touchdowns during his "Firstie" season. Playing during a time when freshmen were not eligible to compete, he was the only player on his team to start all 30 games and concluded his career with 66 catches for 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns.

"I struggled academically," says Steele. "The effort to try and balance the three rigors of cadetship, academic focus and the athletic piece was a real challenge. My strongest memories are the friendships formed because of the challenge presented to each cadet.

"What I learned then is certainly applicable today," continues Steele. "Basic leadership fundamentals are needed in organizations across our country today. They still need the basic leadership principles I learned 40 years ago."

With the support and assistance of his brother, Michael, a 1969 West Point graduate, Steele was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1970 and began his military career as an Infantry officer. His first assignment was in the Canal Zone in Panama as a platoon leader before being asked to return to West Point and serve on the football coaching staff. With an inkling that a civilian career as a coach was possible, Steele accepted the assignment but ultimately chose another path for his career.

Steele decided to branch transfer to Adjutant General Corps to prepare for life after the military, the same branch in which his father served.

Gary then spent 18 years in the Adjutant General branch, first in Greece after graduating with honors from the Greek language course and then in Belgium working with NATO. He spent five years in Fort Carson, Colo., and then was selected to battalion command at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind. He retired as a "full-bird" colonel after being selected as a member of the doctrine writing team that provided revisions of Army FM-100-5 FM Operations, a manual that describes how the Army thinks about the conduct of operations.

With a sparkling background from West Point and the military, Steele went to work for the Kansas City, Mo., School District, after an Army officer reached out seeking an Associate Superintendent for Human Resources.

After overseeing Human Resources in the district for more than 22 years, Steele was offered a position in Connecticut before moving to Pfizer in New York City. At Pfizer, Steele was Director of Human Resources for the European Region Animal Health Business Unit before retiring in 2008 as a Director of Organizational Effectiveness at the corporate headquarters.

"Pfizer really gave me the opportunity to use all of the skills, leadership, organizational training, language skills and knowledge and ability that I learned in the Army and at West Point," says Steele. "My areas were focused on organizational effectiveness, looking at systems processes, coaching, leadership, performance and management. Certainly in a 23-year military career that is kind of what you live and breathe. My father was right; the majority of my skills were very transferable from the military to civilian sector."

Despite a busy schedule heavy with travel and caring for the needs of his family, Steele still makes time to give back. Steele's class helps sponsor the National Conference on Ethics in America, an annual gathering at West Point to promote awareness among undergraduate students of ethical issues in collegiate communities and professional career fields. More than 180 students from 60 academic institutions participate annually with mentors from a variety of backgrounds to discuss moral and ethical challenges. According to the conference website, the goal is to challenge the delegates to think critically about relevant topics and to facilitate dialogue that lays the groundwork to build upon."

Not only does Steele's class sponsor the event, he has also served as a facilitator on numerous occasions.

"West Point has given me so much," says Steele. "I don't know where I would be without it. The conference is a very powerful thing. Upon arrival, most of the attendees don't have a clue about West Point but they are immersed in the cadet experience. These young men and women leave the conference and go back to their schools and homes to think and discuss honor, integrity, leadership and how to use critical thinking. It's interesting to think of the impact we have on so many folks each year."

Steele continues to follow Army athletics and the football team, visits West Point as often as he can and stays active with the National Conference on Ethics in America while enjoying retirement.

"I can't tell you how many times in my military and civilian careers when I have faced challenges that I think back to the experiences I had as a cadet and as an Army officer, and realize how West Point prepared me for those challenges."

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