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News Release

For immediate use 

Aug. 5, 2005 -- No. 349

Local angles: Amherst, Mass.; Seattle; Greenville, S.C.

Author Max Steele, teacher, mentor
to writers, dies in Chapel Hill at 83

CHAPEL HILL — Max Steele, 83, author, mentor and professor of English emeritus at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died Monday (Aug. 1) in Chapel Hill.

Steele’s books include "Debby," "The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers," and the story collections "Where She Brushed Her Hair" and "The Hat of My Mother."

His fiction brought him honors including the Harper Prize, the Saxton Memorial Trust Award, the Mayflower Cup Award and O. Henry Prizes. He received grants for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts.

A much admired and beloved teacher and mentor to generations of writers, Steele directed the UNC creative writing program from 1967 until 1986. Many of his students later became authors, among them Randall Kenan, Jill McCorkle and Lawrence Naumoff.

"Max Steele was a fabulous writer, with a phenomenal imagination, and a genius as a teacher of writing," said Bland Simpson, current program director. "He led us, taught us, inspired us, engaged and befriended us, and never ceased to be the most intriguing of men. We have known a lion."

Born in Greenville, S.C., in 1922, Steele attended Furman and Vanderbilt universities and the Sorbonne and Academie Julienne in Paris. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He was first published in Harper’s magazine in 1944 and graduated from UNC in 1946.

He then lived in Paris, where he was a friend and colleague of George Plimpton and a founding editor of the literary magazine The Paris Review. He remained connected with the Review until his death, listed on the masthead as an editorial associate. He also was an editor for Story magazine.

Steele returned to Chapel Hill to teach in the creative writing program under Jessie Rehder, succeeding her as director upon her death in 1967. With fellow teachers including authors Daphne Athas and Doris Betts, Steele built the program into a highly prized, nationally recognized undergraduate writing curriculum.

"When, during 20 years, he transformed a scatter of writing courses at UNC into a top national undergraduate program, Max changed the lives of hundreds of students and developing writers," said Betts, also a prominent author and teacher, and professor emerita of English at UNC.

"He changed mine as well – teaching me not only how to teach the craft of fiction writing, but how to revise my own work, how to survive academia while having fun. Today, I'm learning how much I mourn and will go on missing Max as a writer, a wit, an irreplaceable friend."

Steele was awarded honorary doctorates from Belmont Abbey College and Furman University and a distinguished alumnus award from Furman.

He is survived by his son Kevin Steele of Seattle, Wash.; his son and daughter-in-law Oliver Steele and Margaret Minsky of Amherst, Mass.; two grandchildren, Miles and Charlotte; and ex-wife Diana Steele of Chapel Hill.

A graveside service will be held today (Aug. 5) at 7 p.m. in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to a new Max Steele Scholarship Fund. Checks may be written to the UNC Arts and Sciences Foundation, designating the Steele Fund on the "for" line, and mailed to the foundation at 134 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514.

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Note: Simpson can be reached at (919) 563-5771; Naumoff, at (919) 742 5399.

Contacts: Lois Rosenthal, retired editor, Story (207) 371-2283; Oliver Steele, (617) 233-5232