THE SAM STEEL WAY
by Bill Armstrong
This article appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of New Mexico Resources.
Photography: J. Victor Espinoza
Traffic slows just long enough to observe a stop sign on an Interstate 10 frontage road near the NMSU campus where, in November 1995, a street's name was changed from "Frontage Road" to "Sam Steel Way." Few people have time to look up at the sign that stands at the Union Avenue intersection. The street was renamed for someone even fewer will recognize today, but who was the talk of the town a century ago.
Sam Steel Way was named for a young man who would have been the first graduate of NMSU, then known as New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, had he not been murdered in 1893. Steel was shot and killed on March 9 of that year in what today is known as Mesilla Park. The 17-year-old was the son of a prominent Mesilla Valley family and a nephew of local Judge John McFie, who helped found the college. Steel began attending the college at age 13.
According to an article in The New Mexico Collegian, a monthly publication of the Columbian Literary Society, Steel was delivering milk at the time of his murder. An excerpt from the article read:
"The hearts of the whole community were stricken with sadness when it was learned that Samuel Steel, the most brilliant student of our College, had been foully and willfully [sic] murdered on Thursday evening, March 9th. We do not consider it in place to refer to the details of this ghastly deed, which are known to most of our readers; we only feel assured that it was perpetrated in sheer cold-bloodedness, and, knowing the victim as well as we have done, without the slightest provocation."
There were no witnesses to Steel's murder. The only suspect, John Roper, was found guilty of the crime in a Doña Ana County courtroom, but was later released after a higher court appeal in Sierra County.
Two days after the shooting, College President Hiram Hadley delivered Steel's funeral sermon at the local Presbyterian church, where six members of the Columbian Literary Society served as pallbearers. In his sermon, Hadley praised Steel's academic performance and his potential.
"Personally, I loved him with a paternal affection, and had planned for him labor along those lines in which he was sure to distinguish himself," Hadley told mourners. "It is rather more than 40 years since I consecrated my life to the work of education. In that period I have had under my care many brilliant youths, a large number of whom now fill exalted positions in their chosen callings, but taken all in all, I have never known the superior, if the equal, of Samuel Steel."
Steel was well-known because he was active in and out of the classroom on a small campus that shows little resemblance to today's. In his book, That All May Learn, Simon Kropp wrote that most classes in Steel's college days were taught in the two-story McFie Hall, which also housed the library, a reading room, and administrative and faculty offices.
Kropp, a professor emeritus of history at NMSU, noted that surrounding McFie Hall were barns, stables, outhouses, and experimental farms. Roads leading into the campus were so poor that some wagons were shaken apart while rolling along.
As Steel entered his senior year in fall 1892, he was joined by six juniors, seven sophomores, and 23 freshmen. Cultural events included musical and dramatic performances by student members of the Columbian Literary Society; the Fortnightly Club, a literary and musical society; and the Cordeagion Society, a female literary society.
Steel's extracurricular activities included membership in the Columbian Literary Society. Formed in 1891, the society was the first organization on campus for men. Its New Mexico Collegian was billed as the "first and only college paper in the Territory." The society's members were involved in paper presentations, story writing, speeches, and debate competitions.
Sam Steel's youngest half-brother, James, later became a physician and surgeon in Hatch. James was 69 when his son, Gordon, was born. Along with other family members, Gordon's mother-Sam Steel's sister-in-law Ethel Lawson-was on hand to cut the ribbon to Sam Steel Way at the May dedication.
Gordon is an avid tracker of his family tree, and has a keen interest in his late uncle.
"He was a very smart man, and I believe he would have become a prominent citizen at a very young age," he says. "He had staunch character ideals. He didn't subscribe to the vices of the day, and he was very verbal about it. Because of that, I believe he was a good role model for everyone."
Today, Gordon is stationed in England as a U.S. Air Force nurse. Just like his late uncle, Gordon is interested in agriculture. For hobbies, he enjoys growing grapes for wine and raising bees for honey. Before transferring to England, Gordon kept several hives at his lower valley Albuquerque home while stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base. He served as president of the New Mexico Bee Keepers Association for two years before going overseas in summer 1995.
"Even though I grew up in the hospital with my father as a surgeon, I'd like to try something different when I retire from the Air Force," he says. "I love agriculture so much that I envision myself gravitating towards it."
Today's graduates of NMSU's College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences are well aware of Sam Steel. At the end of each semester, the College recognizes its graduates by inducting them into the Sam Steel Society during a special pre-commencement ceremony. Since forming in 1993, more than 400 graduates have been inducted into the society.
John C. Owens, College dean and chief administrative officer, says the society is dedicated to bonding the College's "family" more closely.
With Sam Steel's death, there would be no graduation exercise in 1893. Instead, fellow classmate and future chile pioneer Fabian Garcia would join four others to become the first graduating class in 1894. Today, more than a century later, students and graduates can literally follow in Sam Steel's footsteps toward academic achievement by traveling on the road renamed for him.