Whether he was talking to a doctor, a gas station attendant or a politician, Dr. Arthur E. Steele finished up conversations with a nod toward his faith.
Steele, the founder and first president of Clearwater Christian College, always ended a conversation with "I'm praying for you,'' recalled Dr. Richard Stratton, the college's current president.
When Jonathan Steele recently took his father to dinner at a Perkins restaurant, it made him smile to see his father hustle for Jesus: "It was incredible. I watched him as he left a Gospel tract along with a tip on the table for our waitress."
Dr. Steele, who was 90, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure and kidney failure. Although he had lived in Clearwater since 1975, he was residing at Sabal Palms Health Care Center of Largo at the time of his death.
Officially, he never served full time as a pastor. But his preaching skills made him a success at creating and running the school, said Jonathan Steele, who is dean of humanities and fine arts at St. Petersburg College.
Dr. Steele's life path included a degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Tech, now known as Carnegie Mellon University; a World War II stint with the Army Corps of Engineers; and a midlife career change in 1959, when he earned a divinity degree from Faith Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
His work in Christian ministry took him to Shelton College in Ringwood, N.J., where he became president in 1962. But he left in 1965 over disagreements with the school's chairman of the board, Carl McIntyre.
"Simply put, he did not agree with some of Carl McIntyre's business and ethical decisions," Jonathan Steele said. "My father would not abide by some moral decisions that, frankly, went against his conscience.''
Dr. Steele joined forces with other Shelton faculty members to pursue opening their own nondenominational Christian college in Florida.
He and his wife, Dolores, who died in 2003, moved with their five children to St. Petersburg, where they bought a house at Fourth Street and 38th Avenue S for $10,000. He registered his family at Central Bible Church in St. Petersburg and began networking.
"When I think of it now, if a group came out of nowhere and talked about starting a religious school, some would think they were a bunch of quacks,'' said Jonathan Steele. "But it was because of my father's winsome approach and genuine faith that drew people to him.''
Derwin Smith, an entrepreneur and landowner, eventually offered 40 acres of property for the school at the eastern end of Clearwater at the foot of the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Clearwater Christian College opened in September 1966. It's a conservative school that requires a dress code, limited physical contact between the sexes, and daily chapel attendance. Over the past year, it has been embroiled in a controversy stemming from its plan to clear several acres of mangrove swamps for the construction of dorms and athletic fields.
Stratton, the college's current president, considered Dr. Steele a friend and mentor.
"I remember when I first met him in 2002," Stratton said. "We went out to dinner, and even though it had been 20 years since he had been president, he made it clear how important the vision of the school still was to him and how important it is to continue to train young people how to serve the Lord.''
Dr. Steele moved his family from St. Petersburg to Clearwater in 1975. Of his five children — Valerie Steele Mandell, David A. Steele, Jonathan Steele, Karin Steele Puckett and Deborah Steele Adair — three attended Clearwater Christian College.
"He raised us all to be hard workers,'' Jonathan Steele said. "He raised us by one of his favorite phrases, 'Get started, finish the job and then do a little bit of extra work.' ''
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com.