Remembering Elaine Steele, teacher and world traveler

Elaine Elaine Grace Steele, a retired English teacher, died in Berkeley on Dec. 27, six months and five days short of her 100th birthday. She died at home, which was her wish. A memorial gathering is planned for the summer.

Elaine loved books, ballet, theater and her house. She loved her children and grandchildren. She was a world traveler but considered Berkeley “the hub of the universe.” She was tenacious. She was a powerful presence. She had opinions and was willing to express them.

Elaine lived through rheumatic fever and brain surgery. In her 20s, she spent two years in a sanitarium with tuberculosis. Having experienced such trials, she discouraged thoughtless optimism.

She was born in Crosby, North Dakota. Her father, Carl Jacobsen, a Danish immigrant, sailed to America on the Hekla when he was a baby, held up so he could see the Statue of Liberty. Elaine’s mother, Grace Peabody, owned Crosby’s funeral home. Grace told Elaine, who was nearly six feet, not to slouch. She stood tall throughout her life.

Elaine graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Dakota and attended graduate school at UCLA before transferring to Berkeley, where she was a teaching assistant in English. She also taught at the American School in Tokyo, Mills College and Diablo Valley College, where she started in 1969 and retired in 1993. One of her courses at DVC was English as a second language.

She lived overseas with her husband Sterlyn Steele — first in Japan, and later in Calcutta and Tehran when he was in the U.S. Foreign Service. In Calcutta, she entertained Allen Ginsburg, much to the dismay of more senior U.S. officials. Later she went back to Tehran and taught at the Iranzamin School, which she had helped found. She left Iran just before the Islamic Revolution.

She married Sterlyn in 1947. They divorced in 1972 and remained friends. He died in 1999.

Her brother, Carlyle Jacobsen, also predeceased her. They were close all their lives.

She is survived by her four children — Laurel Steele (Doug Kelly), Blaine Steele (Rachael), Linden Steele, and Lorraine Paillard (Luc); by seven grandchildren — James, PJ, Loreli, Talulla, Adele, Max and Aline; and by two nieces — Karen Jacobsen and Lynn Jacobsen. A great-grandchild, Mélodie, was born 11 hours after Elaine’s death.

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The family wishes to thank the caregivers who provided round the clock care for Elaine — Mary Bayot, Emily Ilustre, Camille Mugas-Penara, Leslie Nevado, Belle Okit, Erika Tinoco and Beverly Uyping — as well as her in-home primary care physician, Dr. Michelle Dhanak; her physical therapist, Hossein Massoudi; and her psychologist, Dr. Karl Knobler; and her original caregiver,  Herle Magwili.