The Continuity of Things
By Maraya Cornell Since childhood, Andrée Steele has had a passion for history. Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb west of Paris, Steele read her history textbooks “way before the other students,” and was always at the top of her classes. Now a sprightly 86, she’s worked nearly 30 years as a docent at the Historical Museum in Santa Barbara and at the Courthouse on Anacapa Street. She’s donated her time to the community in other ways as well: reading books (in French) for Recording for the Blind and delivering food for Meals on Wheels. She also runs a monthly French language club, “Parlez-Vous Français.”
As a young woman, she made the practical decision to study law at Sorbonne University in Paris. “You don’t make a living with history,” she explained. Ironically, she’s never practiced. In October 1944, she met an American soldier named Sydney Steele at a military ball. Six months after that first dance they were married. Sydney was sent to Germany for occupation duty, and Andrée soon joined him in the post-war ruins of a suburb outside Frankfurt. Though military life was limited, and contact with the Germans was strictly forbidden, Steele is characteristically cheerful about her time there, and tolerant of the shortcomings of a war-torn country. In Germany, she said, it was “the beginning of a new history.”
Nor was she bothered by frequent relocations. For most of Sydney’s career, the couple lived in various German cities. During the 1940s, they spent a year in Los Angeles, and in the ’50s, several years in Orléans, France. Sydney retired from the army in 1957, as a lieutenant colonel, and because all four of their children attended UCSB, the decision to settle in Santa Barbara was easy.
Andrée learned about the Historical Society from the welcoming committee for new arrivals. When she paid them a visit, they happened to be recruiting new docents. “I had no idea what that was,” she said, “but I said ‘Yes!’’’ She immediately found California history fascinating, particularly the evolution of a culture built over the years by waves of immigrants. In narratives of Spanish missionaries riding north from Mexico into a mysterious territory, she sees parallels with her own experiences arriving in new places with no idea what to expect.
Andrée, however, never lost her ties with France. She and her husband spent two months there each year, visiting family. Prompted by Sydney’s passing last July, Andrée is planning to move back to France at the end of April. She will live in Normandy, near her daughter Anne, seven grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters. Though she won’t be taking up docent duties in her next home, she will remember the Historical Society of Santa Barbara “with pleasure.”
In her study of history, Andrée has always looked for a story with meaning. No matter the location, and whoever the players, events follow one from another, creating patterns of cause and effect. “History,” she said, “is the continuity of things.”