Bonnie and Oliver Steele began visiting Central Oregon in the early 1990s and bought a vacation home in Sunriver in 1992. While the married couple loved exploring new places, there was one spot in the region they kept coming back to.

“Anyone who came to visit my folks, the High Desert Museum was always on their list of places to take them,” said Penny Brondum, the Steeles’ daughter, of the natural history museum located just south of Bend.

Brondum said the couple had long been members of the museum and donated frequently over the years. Oliver Steele died in 2013, and Bonnie Steele died this spring. But the couple had put in motion a plan to provide one final gift for the museum: a $476,000 endowment to fund education programs at the museum in perpetuity.

Dana Whitelaw, executive director of the High Desert Museum, said the gift supports the museum’s curator of education position, which oversees the museum’s diverse set of education programs for elementary, middle and high school students. She said the programs range from tours of the museum to on-site demonstrations of a fire-adapted ecosystem.

“Our mission is to connect our visitors to the history of the High Desert,” Whitelaw said. “Our goal is to make those lessons inspiring and engaging.”

Oliver Steele spent his early life on a Kansas farm during the Great Depression and eventually grew up to work as a liquid metals expert, according to Brondum. He married Bonnie, who became a real estate broker, in 1945. The pair lived all over the country, from Southern California to Manhattan, Kansas, but Brondum said one common element was their focus on education. She said teaching ran in the family, with both Oliver and his father teaching in one-room schoolhouses in Kansas.

“My parents always believed in education, that education would always carry you through,” she said.

The couple had long planned to leave a gift for the museum, and after Oliver died, the family discussed their options with museum staff. Given the family focus on education, a commitment to the curator of education seemed like a natural fit.

Whitelaw said the museum has added a commemorative plaque about the Steeles outside of its largest classroom. The curator of education position will be renamed for the couple and funded through their endowment.

Heidi Hagemeier, director of communications for the High Desert Museum, said the museum hosts about 11,000 students from school groups and summer camps each year from all over the state. The field trips range from tours to more sophisticated efforts.

Whitelaw said one recurring program, aimed at fourth- and fifth-graders, allows students to create miniature wooden models of forests to demonstrate how fire-adapted ecosystems work. They develop different forests with different tree densities using wooden figurines. And then the students light the displays on fire as a demonstration of how wildfire travels through the forest.

“We want to create moments of discovery,” she said.

Brondum added that the endowment will be used to bring in students from far-flung areas of Central Oregon who might not otherwise be able to travel to the museum, allowing other visitors to experience one of her parents’ favorite places.

“They just loved the museum and felt that they wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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