Joe Steele: A Legacy Built on Love

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Adopted, Adored and Accomplished


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This past fall I ventured to Cincinnati to accompany Joe Steele, on a leg of the national book tour for Forbidden Love, a memoir of Joe’s journey finding his birth mother and learning about his birth father, written by Lisa Jones Gentry, and his Going Home Tour, a return to his birthplace and childhood haunts.  What I learned is instinct is a faithful partner if we allow it, and love surpasses all.

 Forbidden Love, on its surface, is about two people who fell madly in love; but at its core is the love of a group of people that allowed a set of unfortunate circumstances to unfold to a beautiful conclusion.

 So here’s the story.

 Around the age of eight Joe began to hear rumblings he couldn’t quite comprehend, but knew they had meaning.  By his teens he had connected the dots and determined he was an adopted child.  Joe being Joe, he was fully aware his situation was a good one and wasn’t about to rock any boats. So he let sleeping dogs lie.

Joe Steele and his birth mother Sophie Legocki at their first meeting.

Joe Steele and his birth mother Sophie Legocki at their first meeting.

 In his thirties the need to know began to call, but Joe was not answering. As Gentry points out he pondered, as he had as a child, “was I less than grateful for the loving family that adopted me as an infant,” because I want to open this door.  His instinct told him he had to in order “to know the complete self.” He continued to wonder until the morning his brother called with the news his adoption files were available. Joe eventually went looking. He found contact information and reached out to the mother he had never known. Several months later they met. Time passed, more than a decade.  Then one day he was summoned to her hospital bedside and learned she had listed him as next of kin.  It was there, in that room, where the story of the love between his birth parents unfolded.

 Through 278 pages and 54 chapters Gentry makes it clear Joe’s life was filled with love unimaginable. William Grau and Sophie Legocki, a black priest and white nun fall in love and defy the Catholic church and society. Loving friends, although unknowingly, keep them safe as they bring their child into the world. Billy Steele, a young boy accompanies his parents to an orphanage and chooses Joe as his little brother before the adults ever lay eyes on him. It’s a love that persists to this day and was palpable during the Going Home Tour as Billy shared details of Joe’s adoption at St. Joseph’s Orphanage and stories of Joe’s shenanigans outside of their childhood home and other stops along the way.

Joe and Billy Steele, Florence Steele, William Steele, Father William Grau and Sister Sophie Legocki.

Joe and Billy Steele, Florence Steele, William Steele, Father William Grau and Sister Sophie Legocki.

“Where there is love there is life.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

There’s William and Florence, a loving black couple, up in age, which adopt Joe—a child white families bypassed because of his black blood and black families because of the white—and love him as their own. Then there’s Grandma, who adores the ground Joe walks on, and uncle Otis who becomes a father figure very early in Joe’s life. And there are others: Joe’s outgoing best friend Chris, who guided him through his teen years, and Mama Lan, a family friend, Gentry writes, who “was almost like another mother,” to him and made “the best and most delicious crispy chicken ever.”

This enormous outpouring of care and concern from family and community serve as a testament to what one can achieve when well loved.  Joe often states his parents and extended family did their part to provide him with a good life and he believed his part was to do well in school.  Living up to this self-imposed commitment led to his acceptance to the prestigious St. Xavier High School and later Harvard College and Harvard Business School. Joe’s lived experience provided him with strong cross-cultural sensitivities and a propensity for diversity, equity and inclusion, all of which steered him to a successful career as a global development consultant and executive coach for governmental agencies, nonprofit and for-profit organizations in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Australia and several African, European and Asian countries. Not a bad legacy for the boy born to a black priest and a white nun, adopted by a black family and raised in the Midwest.  Love is truly a verb.

 Forbidden Love is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookseller sites, and you may follow Joe and Lisa @forbiddenlovememoir on Instagram and Facebook. Find book club information, excerpts and more at the website.


© Jelani Bandele 2019 | Photos courtesy of Joe Steele

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