Families’ futures draw on past

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 23, 2001

Some parents work a lifetime to leave their children financially secure. Others take measures to ensure their lands or family heirlooms are cared for after they are gone.

But for the families of two well-remembered philanthropists – Grace MacNeil and Dr. David Steckler – their most treasured legacy is a love of community and the desire to make it a better place.

And it’s not only a legacy, but also a challenge, to carry on the tradition of philanthropy that has become intertwined with the family name.

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Leading by example

Sisters Anne MacNeil and Elizabeth Boggess don’t remember their mother, Grace MacNeil, teaching them to be responsible members of the community.

Neither can recall times growing up in New Jersey when their Natchez-born mother took them aside to point out how or why they should seek out ways to help their fellow man.

In fact, the women said they did not come to a full appreciation of their mother’s talent for civic service until they were adults, and even more so after her death last year.

“I think I learned so much about my mother from other people after she died,” MacNeil said.

Even as Grace McNeil helped to integrate the Girl Scouts of America while serving as president or when she donated the acreage for what is now the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, her daughters had as modest a view of their mother as she did of herself.

“I had no sense of my mother as anything other than my mother,” Anne MacNeil said.

But looking back now, both said they recognize the impression their mother made on them by her example.

“I think both of us grew up with the sense of the importance in everything we do,” Boguss said.

This was a lesson their mother taught them by example, almost through an “osmosis” of being near her while she worked, Boggess said.

Suzanne Steckler, the eldest daughter of Dr. David Steckler, said the same was true of her father.

“Dad didn’t teach any of us he pretty much led by example,” she said.

Her sister, Stephanie Steckler Bryson, said she never remembers her father “preaching” to his nine children when it came to community service.

Instead, the example created by his character and his actions commanded a respect from his children, as well as the community, that motivated them to follow in his footsteps.

For Bryson, her motivation to imitate her father, both during his life and now after his death, is out of respect for a man she admired.

“Particularly in high school, there were a lot of decisions I didn’t make, not because I was a good person, although I would like to say that, but because I didn’t want to bring him shame,” Bryson said.

Though Steckler didn’t push his children – or anyone else – to be active in their community, he did have a way of encouraging behavior he thought was needed, widow Dale Steckler said.

“I think they were able to see he really did care about them and their involvement,” she said. “He was very straight forward. If he wanted you to do something, he would tell you, ‘I think you should do this and this is why.'”

Suzanne Steckler agreed.

“He just believed everyone should be involved,” she said. “People will tell you, ‘I did such and such because of your dad.'”

“The philosophy he must have been taught must have been if you don’t pitch in and help, it’s not going to get done,” she said.

Wesley Steckler, now a sophomore at Mississippi State University, said he remembers his father encouraging him and his siblings to put their ideas into action.

“If you wanted to do anything, he made you go out and do it,” he said.

Family at the center

And though their father’s projects – which all agreed were too numerous to list – almost always benefitted the community as a whole, they usually began with family in mind.

“I think a lot of the things he did revolved around us,” Suzanne Steckler said.

When several children were involved in swimming, but the team had no indoor practice facility, Steckler jump-started a move to reopen the Carpenter School No. 2 pool, now enjoyed by senior citizens.

Perhaps one of Steckler’s best-known projects, the expansion of Duncan Park golf course, began after the boys took an interest in the sport. Steckler, a member of the city’s recreation council then, drove the effort to expand the course from nine holes to 18.

A focus on family was also a driving force behind the MacNeil’s efforts to improve and preserve the community, and one that MacNeil learned from her parents and grandparents, Anne MacNeil said.

“That’s how she was brought up – family was very important,” she said.

She and Boggess said they were both taught a responsibility to family first, followed only by that to people in the community.

And underlying it all is the idea of stewardship, or taking care of resources whether it be land or historic houses, for enjoyment by the next generation.

“Stewardship, not ownership. That was engraved in both of us very early on,” Boggess said.

“I don’t own something for myself. I’m taking care of it for the next generation.”

Though they didn’t come into historic preservation in the same way, the sisters have taken on their mother’s work, Boggess as a historic archeologist and MacNeil as president of the Natchez Garden Club.

Growing up in the Northeast, Anne MacNeil said both her mother and father instilled an appreciation of history in their children.

But it was on the occasional trips to Natchez to visit her mother’s family that the sisters realized the value of caring for the history with which they had been entrusted.

“I didn’t know about historic preservation in those words,” MacNeil said. “It was just something we grew up with.”

And in their pursuits to improve the quality of life in the community, Grace MacNeil and David Steckler’s paths often crossed, as in the joint purchase of a collection of artifacts known as the Natchez Museum.

Suzanne Steckler remembers her father’s excitement about the venture.

“In his mind, that was going to be a great way to show the community to a younger generation,” Suzanne said.

Following in the footsteps

The desire to preserve for the next generation is also at the root of brothers Wesley and Gerrit Steckler’s involvement in Ducks Unlimited, an organization that seeks to protect and manage the country’s wetlands for preservation of waterfowl and other wildlife.

“You want your children to see it,” Gerrit Steckler said.

It is an active interest they learned from their father who was instrumental in forming the local DU chapter. In fact, all the children and mother Dale Steckler are quick to point out their father’s traits in themselves and one another.

“Instead of ‘they look like a Steckler,’ it’s ‘they act like a Steckler,'” Gerrit said.

Gerrit, an aspiring chef, inherited his father’s love of food; Jennifer, the willingness to donate time and effort to every cause that comes along; for Wesley, it’s a love of music; and for Mark, athleticism and an understanding of the value of recreation.

Eldest son David Jr. is in residence as a physician himself, and Stephanie Bryson carries her father’s dedication to education into the classroom as a teacher.

“I tried to instill in my students a love of learning just for the sake of learning,” Bryson said. “If there is anything he has passed on to me, it’s that.”

And just like their father, all are modest in their contributions to the Steckler name.

“If I could just do half the amount my father did, I would be doing well,” Jennifer said.

“I just hope I have the wisdom, the courage and the confidence my father had.”

The youngest, 15-year-old Mary Margaret, is still searching for her contribution among her brothers and sister’s accomplishments.

“I wish I would have had the opportunity they had to do more things with him,” she said.

But just as the older children learned from their father, Mary Margaret in turn looks to them for guidance and inspiration to continue the cycle.

And mother Dale Steckler has no doubts her children will carry on the work begun by their father while making their own mark on the family name.

“They are going to end up doing a lot of things they’ll be surprised they did,” she said.

Anne MacNeil and Boggess also see their mother’s legacy of good works in her grandchildren, such as Boggess’ son, who is a field archaeologist.

“This continues through the generations, and it will be interesting to see what the grandbabies do,” she said.

But with big shoes to fill, both MacNeil and Boggess say they have an advantage their mother didn’t have.

“I’m glad there are two of us,” Boggess said, smiling at her sister.