Marion “Bill” Steele, known to many as the unofficial mayor of North San Juan, died Monday. He was 92.
Steele and his wife, Toki, had been fixtures in the tightly knit community since they opened Toki’s Fountain in 1971.
Over four decades, Toki’s became much more than just a place to grab some grub — it was a meeting place for people of wildly divergent backgrounds.
“It was a forum there, every day,” Bill said in an 2012 interview. “People would come in the back door and join in the conversation.”
One regular over the years was Don Wirta, a former PG&E worker who said he was one of their first customers when they opened the restaurant.
Steele “was one tough dude,” Wirta said. “He didn’t take anything from anybody.”
But Wirta and many of those who knew Steele best said that although he could be a curmudgeon, he quietly helped many locals.
“Once you got to know him, he was unbelievable,” Wirta said. “He was a neat guy — he did a lot for that town.”
Former Nevada County Sheriff’s deputy Jeff Alaways — who got to know Steele very well while on patrol on the Ridge in the early 1980s — echoed the sentiment.
“He was always a very giving man,” Alaways said. “He was generous to the point where people would take advantage of him.”
Alaways said that after he retired from the Sheriff’s office, he lost contact with Steele for nearly 25 years.
But when Alaways went to Steele with an unusual request last fall, he said the former Marine was happy to help.
A retired U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant named Victor E. Schutt had died, and his wife wanted to bury him in a “Dress Blue” uniform. Alaways, who was to officiate at Schutt’s funeral, heard that the family had been unsuccessful in finding a uniform on such short notice.
“I got ahold of Bill,” Alaways said. “He didn’t even hesitate — he didn’t want any money for it.”
Steele didn’t have any problem with Schutt’s family using the uniform for the burial, since he planned to be cremated, he told Alaways.
Steele was born in Minneapolis on Sept. 20, 1921, said his son, Bill Steele III.
He was sent to live with a family friend in the 1930s off Moonshine Road near North San Juan, and then was taken in by the Salvation Army Home in Healdsburg.
His first job was with the California State Forestry Service. He was stationed in Monterey when the war with Japan began, and immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps.
He saw action in the Pacific, including battles at Guadalcanal and, most significantly, at Iwo Jima.
In 2012, he was honored by the California 3rd Assembly District as Veteran of the Year.
After the war, he married and returned to work with the Department of Forestry, living in Nevada City while working at the local forestry station.
In 1959, he began a new career with Pan Pacific Sports Company and helped to build a golf course and sporting goods facility on Okinawa. It was there he met and married Toki Kinjo.
In the late 1960s, he resumed his military career working with the Phoenix Group in Vietnam, before returning to California.
Steele loved politics, his son said.
He was sometimes a conservative democrat, sometimes a Republican, sometimes a Libertarian, always putting principle over party.
After he returned from Vietnam he ran for Congress hoping to restore true American values, including individual liberty and basic honesty in government.
He also ran for Nevada County supervisor in 2000.
Aside from his commitment to local politics, because of his connections with Okinawa, he argued vigorously for the return of independence to Okinawa and for the departure of American troops from the island, hoping to return it to the “green island of peace” it had been before the Pacific War.
Steele never shirked from speaking his mind, sometimes in colorful language.
“I understood where he was coming from,” said Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston, with whom Steele often butted heads. “He was very passionate, very concerned about his community.
“He was an icon of the community,” Weston added. “He is irreplaceable.”
Many in town denigrated Steele for his politics, said friend Anthony Stewart, alluding to Steele’s vocal dislike of “longhairs” and “hippies.”
“He didn’t care,” Stewart said. “He never forgot a favor, always called a spade a spade, (and) thought the sun rose and set with Toki.”
Steele “ultimately (was) a very kind and gentle man,” Stewart added.
Steele, who died peacefully in his sleep, was continually looking forward to a reunion with Toki in heaven, his son said.
He is survived by son Marion William Steele III, who teaches Japanese history in Tokyo, and daughter Pamela Ann Burke, a veterinarian who lives and works in Portland, as well as nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held on Saturday afternoon in North San Juan.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.