by Sheryl Marlar

“Dr. Steely was a beloved friend to the campus and to our community,” said Dr. Kyle Marrero, president of the University of West Georgia, in response to the recent passing of Dr. Melvin Thomas Steely, retired professor of history at UWG.

Dr. Mel Steely“Through his long and successful endeavors as an educator, political consultant and historian, his life’s work left an enduring impact and legacy at UWG,” Marrero continued. “He will be dearly missed.”

Steely began his employment in 1964 at then-West Georgia College, teaching Modern European and German History.

During his tenure at West Georgia, Steely served as the local and state president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He was appointed to multiple terms on national committee for AAUP, and served as one of its lobbyists for 20 years. Additionally, he was the recipient of AAUP’s National Sumberg Award and the State Akin Award.

In 1970, Steely served on the search committee that hired Newt Gingrich as a professor of history. Later, in 1978, Gingrich would win election to the U.S. House of Representatives, with Steely working alongside him in his campaign. He worked as a congressional aide from 1978 til 1992, and served as head of the advisory committee on matters of campaign and policy in the beginning of Gingrich’s congressional career, communicating the goals and ideas of Gingrich to the local Carrollton office.

“The very first day I came to West Georgia College, I walked into the history department, and there was Mel,” Gingrich said. “From that day forward, he was my guide. He introduced me to campus politics and to department politics, and all the things that one has to know to survive as a college professor.”

Involved actively throughout his life in politics, Steely first became interested in politics in 1946 when his father campaigned for Eugene Talmadge’s gubernatorial run. After that, it became something of an avocation to him.

“Mel’s dad drove for one of Georgia’s most famous democratic governors,” Gingrich continued. “He could bridge both parties because he was authentically in both parties–he loved the process most. Not just a specific issue, but people trying to get together to improve their country.

In 1983 Steely began collecting political documents after he saw members of an outgoing politician’s staff destroying files when he left office. This action led to the start of the Georgia Political Heritage Program (GPHP) in 1985, making UWG’s Ingram Library a depository for large collections of political papers, videos and tapes on political figures, as well as several Georgia governors and a number of state and national politicians. The GPHP holds valuable historical resources of these political leaders so they are not lost to time.

“In my last year as president, Steely won two big honors: The Governor’s Award in the Arts and Humanities and the Southeastern Library Association’s Charles Beard Award,” said Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna, UWG president emeritus and professor of business. “The awards were for his decades of service and documenting and preserving the papers and recorded memoirs of Georgia political figures.”

Beyond his political efforts, Steely was involved in numerous civic organizations, including the Moose and Elk Clubs, Sons of Confederate Veterans and a board member of the Churchill Society. He was also a senior member of the Carrollton Kiwanis Club, receiving its Legion of Merit Award for service.

In addition, he was a member of Gov. George Busbee’s Committee on Post-Secondary Education, Gov. Zell Miller’s Committee on Quality Core Curriculum Revision and the Georgia Civil War Commission under Gov. Sonny Perdue.

As one of West Georgia’s longest-serving members of the faculty, Steely retired in 2004 after 40 years in the classroom.

“Dr. Mel Steely demonstrated respect and regard for preserving the history of a succession of democratic and republican leaders,” said Sethna, in his letter of recommendation for Steely’s Southeastern Library Association’s Charles Beard Award. “I want to be sure we respect and revere the commitment of this individual who stands tall in his discipline and his regard for the preservation of our history.

“He was a great man, but more importantly, he was a good man,” added Sethna as a personal reflection. “He was my friend.”

“He was the kind of person on whom a free society depends,” Gingrich concluded. “He made West Georgia a much better institution for being there, and he made me a better leader by being my friend. He invested his life in helping others.”

Photography by Steven Broome

Posted on Feb. 1, 2019