During a quiet but emotional ceremony, more than 2,000 family members, friends, and law officers honored California Highway Patrol Sgt. John L. Steel who was killed April 23, 1993 in a head-on collision on his way to work in Santa Ana from Lake Forest.
Riding to work in full uniform and helmet, Steel, 47, became the l7lst CHP officer killed in the line of duty the fourth in Orange County. He also was the second Orange County law officer killed in less than two months.
The services for Steel, a 20-year veteran of the CHP, filled the 1,900-seat Calvary Church in Santa Ana to capacity.
“I am told that John would not be comfortable being called a hero,” said Thomas Sayles, who oversees the CHP as State Secretary of Business and Transportation. “But that’s what he was, and that is what we need in these troubled times… John’s untimely death was a stark reminder of the danger our officers face.”
Steel’s funeral service was attended by CHP Commissioner Maury Hannigan, from Sacramento, and a contingent of officers from Houston, where a friend of Steel’s is a patrol officer. The Texas contingent had driven to California with their headlights on in tribute.
In the church, Steel’s wife, Virginia, sat with her two sons, Jake, 17, and Jordan, 13. She selected two songs for the service, “I’ll Leave Something Good Behind,” by Barbara Mandrell, intended as a tribute from her husband to her sons, and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” by Bette Midler, as her tribute to her husband.
Steel, a longtime participant in Police Olympics and softball teams, was remembered by friends as a father figure and mentor a man who could clown around but who also knew just what to say to defuse a tense situation.
“He had the comic timing of a Jack Benny,” said Matt Clark, a longtime friend who recently retired from the CHP. Clark said Steel used humor to relax officers before inspections, or at accident scenes to calm victims.
During Steel’s career he received numerous commendations for his work as a patrol sergeant and received letters of appreciation from area law enforcement agencies and the Secret Service. Steel was the coordinator of protective details assigned to visiting dignitaries such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
A 1963 graduate of Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, Steel majored in business law and finance at Mesa College, California State University, San Diego, and tile University of Southern California. He joined the Highway Patrol in July 1972.
“He had enough time on the job to be transferred out to the woods, to the mountains, to the beach, but he liked Orange County,” said Officer Bernard who works at the Newhall station. “The congestion, the traffic. It didn’t bother him.”
“When we think of John, there are tears, and those tears are for us, said CHP station Chief Richard Layne. “And then there’s a smile, and that smile is for John.”
The biggest tribute came from Virginia Steel, who was quoted by Lane from the podium: “No better words could be put on a tombstone than these: He left nothing unsaid. He left nothing undone.