Modest donor steps out to accept honors

Friends of Newport Beach philanthropist Elizabeth Steele hope a coastal oak sapling planted in her honor this week at the Environmental Nature Center will grow into a massive shade tree that children can climb one day.

Members of the group Stop Polluting Our Newport and other environmentalists gathered at the nature center Saturday to present Steele, 88, with the 2009 Frank and Frances Robinson Environmental Award and dedicate the tree in her honor.

“I’d rather have a legacy of giving trees than anything else,” said Steele, who made a rare public appearance on Saturday for the event in her honor. “The city should plant more of them.”

Steele, or Betty as her friends call her, is modest about her philanthropy. She didn’t want to be recognized for her commitment to environmental causes.


“She believes that philanthropy is not something that should be used to put a person into the spotlight, but as something intended to make a difference in the world,” said Shelley Hoss, executive director of the Orange County Community Foundation.

Along with her sister-in-law Audrey Steele Burnand, Steele was one of the trustees of the Harry and Grace Steele Foundation. Over the course of 53 years, the foundation contributed about $165 million to causes ranging from Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian to the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

“They were very thoughtful about what they gave,” said Jean Watt, co-founder of Stop Polluting Our Newport. “They like it to be educational and for the people of our society. They put in enough money to put these things on their feet and really make things sustainable.”

Its resources spent after more than 50 years of philanthropy, the foundation gave a final donation of $4.5 million to the Environmental Nature Center in 2006. The money went to build a new 9,000-square-foot nature center made mostly out of recycled materials on 3.5 acres of land on East 16th Street. The new center has been up and running since June 2008.


Adorned with a large orange bow and a butterfly-shaped helium ballon on Saturday, Steele’s tree was grown from an acorn by philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith on her ranch in San Juan Capistrano.

“I look forward to the day where its shadow is cast upon all who visit the nature center,” said Bo Glover, executive director of the center.

Local environmentalist Jan Vandersloot hand-picked the tree from Smith’s ranch because of it’s low-slung branches. “I had a visions of children climbing on it like step ladder,” he said.

Saturday’s dedication event was made possible by donations by Zinc Cafe and Market; Promelis Westcliff Market; Roger’s Gardens and Starbucks Coffee.