Associate history professor Tracy Lee Steele, Ph.D., died Sunday afternoon after having metastatic melanoma. She was 54.
“We were very close,” Brian Domitrovic, history department chair said. “She was the professor who brought the modern study of Chinese history to Sam—I mean, she is it. She planted Sam’s flag in China and was the person who gathered all the modern interest in China and Chinese history at Sam.”
Steele, who began teaching at Sam Houston State University in 1992, spent the last 23 years of her life teaching a plethora of both undergraduate and graduate history courses, specializing in Asian, Chinese and Japanese history and culture.
Getting an early start, Steele spent much of her life studying abroad at various schools like the London School of Economics, the University of Jordan, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the National Taiwan Normal University.
“China was a closed society for many years through the 1980s, and Tracy Steele was one of the first scholars who got to go there as a graduate student—she first went to China in 1981,” Domitrovic said. “There was very little scholarly interaction with China before then, so she brought that to Sam and she was the Chinese historian so that’s easily her most important legacy—that she established modern Chinese history at Sam.”
Prior to joining the faculty of SHSU, Steele also taught at the Jiangsu Technical Teachers University, the Lahore College of Arts and Sciences and her alma mater, the London School of Economics.
James S. Olson, history professor and former department chair, hired Steele at the American Historical Association Convention in 1992.
“She was a very kind and decent woman,” Olson said. “She was without guile, she cared about other people, she was quite humble, quite bright and she wanted the best for everybody. She could always be trusted to state her opinion, always wanted to do the right thing for others. She was honest in the very best sense of that word.”
During Steele’s research as an educator, she had a total of nine publications, nine book reviews and authored 24 papers. In addition, she participated in a multitude of workshops and institutes while belonging to organizations like the Association of Asian Studies, the Southwest Conference on Asian Studies and the Society for Historians for American Foreign Relations.
“[She was] a very hard person to replace and she was also such a good person, students felt comfortable around her,” Olson said. “She could be a demanding professor in that, she had high standards and expected students to complete the work that she had assigned and sometimes it was a lot of work. I think she would generally be known here as a professor who had very high standards and who assigned high workloads to students. But they responded well.”
While at SHSU, Steele was a member of faculty senate and even served as the senate’s president from 2012-13. In addition, Steele was also involved with East West Center of Hawaii under the auspices of which she was able to lead a student group to the People’s Republic of China on two different occasions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“It was Tracy Steele who represented that connection between China and this country to Sam students and to the university almost exclusively for many years,” Domitrovic said. “Her role on the faculty was really important so it’s just kind of a shame that we lose her two decades too early—at least as a faculty member.”
Steele was first diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in January 2014 just days before the beginning of the spring 2014 semester. As the only professor of East Asian history, the history department scrambled to cover her courses while Steele spent the semester undergoing various surgeries.
After recovering, Steele attempted to teach courses during the first summer session of 2014, however, after making a turn for the worst, she was unable to complete the session.
“She can’t be replaced because it’s not easy to combine that intellect with that kind nature, it’s just going to be a tough search to try to fill that person,” Olson said. “I’ll miss her. We both had cancer together for a long time and she was always worried about my cancer and this last year, the roles reversed and I tried to worry about hers and help her in any way that I could. I’ll just miss her. We lost another long-time faculty member Dr. Billartz here just a little while ago so I’m—starting to cry right now. I’m going to miss her.”
Steele is survived by her mother, two brothers and sister.
“It’s a hole, it’s a void,” Domitrovic said. “But we have that great precedence so we will search beginning this spring and we will find someone worthy to continue the work that she started.”
There will be a public memorial ceremony in honor of Steele in Austin Hall at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday.