An OMRF donor follows in the footsteps of his mentor
From a rocking chair on the porch overlooking the rolling hills of his eastern Oklahoma ranch, Kenneth Steele sums up his career in a breath: “I was a cowboy.”
In 1959, married with three young daughters, Steele needed work that was more stable than his gig in the oil field. The then-23-year-old found it on the 10,000-acre Chapman Ranch in Holdenville, Oklahoma.
The job in his native Hughes County paid less than the $1.65 an hour he pulled in as a roughneck, but it included a furnished home, space for a vegetable garden, and a side or two of beef a year. It also set him on a path toward a life of generosity, thanks to the guidance of the ranch’s owner.
“After about a year working there, Mr. Chapman took an interest in me and taught me his way of doing things,” says Steele. Mr. Chapman was James A. Chapman, a legendary Oklahoma oilman and rancher. With his wife, Leta, Chapman set up a trio of trusts benefitting OMRF. The pair first named the foundation as a beneficiary of a charitable trust in 1949, the year OMRF began construction.
In the seven-plus decades since, funds from the Chapman Trusts have bolstered OMRF in good times and bad, provided start-up dollars to recruit new scientists, and supported countless renovation and construction projects. The trusts also help fund administrative costs at the foundation, enabling donations from others to go directly to research.
Under Chapman’s mentorship, Steele learned that nothing ever went to waste. More than once, Steele watched Chapman hammer bent horseshoe nails so they could be reused. If a building needed to be taken down on his property, says Steele, “he saved everything – all the lumber, even the nails.”
“Mr. Chapman was a self-reliant, independent kind of man, but he wanted to take care of people in need,” says Jeff Sanders of Bank of Oklahoma, which serves as a trustee of the Chapman Trusts. “He also wanted to invest in basic science to improve lives far in the future, which is what drew him to OMRF.”
Steele lived on the Chapman family’s Holdenville ranch working cattle for 31 years. He also moonlit at other Chapman properties that dotted the state. “I’d go to the ranches in Roff and Davis and learn from the cowboys there, who learned from Mr. Chapman,” Steele says.
James Chapman passed away in 1966, and Leta Chapman in 1974. By then, Steele had risen to lead the Holdenville ranch, which continued operations after both Chapmans’ deaths. Steele retired from the Chapman enterprise when the Holdenville land was sold in 1990, shifting his focus to his own ranch 3 miles down the road, which he still runs “the Chapman way” at the age of 87.
When Steele and his wife, Bernice, found they had the means to give back, the decision to support OMRF was easy. “I wanted to pattern all I could after the Chapmans,” he says. “They gave a portion of what they had to OMRF, and I thought if they did that, it’d be alright for me to do it, too.” The Steeles’ streak of consecutive years of donations to OMRF now stands at 20.
Today, Steele continues to show his family how he learned to live and leaves the rest up to them. “I don’t suppose I’m the kind to tell others what to do,” he says, “but when I read what OMRF is doing, I feel proud to have a small part in it.”
Read more from the Winter/Spring 2024 issue of Findings