The award was presented by Gov. Nathan Deal during a Tuesday ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol. Steely was among 12 Georgians receiving these first awards recognizing individuals and organizations for significant contributions to Georgia’s cultural vitality.
Lorene Flanders, dean of the library, nominated Steely for the award. Steely praised Flanders and the archivist staff at Ingram Library for their work.
The Georgia Council on the Arts, the Georgia Humanities Council and the Georgia Film and Music and Digital Entertainment Office joined in the presentation of the awards.
“One interesting thing about the awards is they decided not to give plaques or certificates for framing,” Steely said. “Instead, they gave works of art, carved wooden bowls, made by Atlanta artist Matt Moulthrop, a third-generation wood turner. The Governor’s Arts Awards information is on the bottom.”
Steely also received the Award for Service to Archives and Libraries from the Georgia Library Association last year and the Charles Beard Award two weeks ago from the Southeast Regional Library Association. Beard was an award-winning former West Georgia College librarian.
Steely said the governor’s award is specifically for his building the political heritage archive program at the university library, which contains donations from several local, state and national political office holders.
He said the program began sort of incidentally in 1985, when he was working with then U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, a longtime friend and professional colleague at the university.
“Newt and I had gone down to see former Sen. Herman Talmadge after he retired,” Steely recalled. “After we’d talked awhile, Newt asked him (Talmadge) if anyone has asked for his papers. After Talmadge said, ‘no,’ Newt jumped in and said West Georgia would like to do a series of interviews. I agreed to set it up.”
Steely said he talked with then-University of West Georgia President Maurice Townsend about the project.
“Being a political scientist, Townsend saw the value of it,” Steely said. “He said he couldn’t offer much money, but would pay for my gas.”
Steely said they decided on the name, “Georgia Political Heritage Program,” and it started out by bringing Talmadge to Carrollton to talk with local groups.
“We made Talmadge an adjunct professor, which meant he had a title, but didn’t get paid,” he said. “We had big meetings with him at the Education Center, where he talked about the presidents he’d known and his favorite politicians. We have about 70 hours of tape with him talking about everything from Watergate to his early political campaigns.”
He said all the videos have since been digitalized and made available through the Internet. He said Georgia Public Broadcasting did that work and gave it back to the university. Now, those videos can be accessed by anyone online by going to the university’s website, Steely said.
He said former Nixon staffer John Dean recently called to ask about getting a copy of the Talmadge tapes on Watergate for a book Dean is writing.
“I told him he could call the videos up on the Internet and make his own copies,” Steely said.
Other political figures they interviewed for the archive include former President Jimmy Carter, all Georgia governors since Ellis Arnall, former Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, Congressmen Bob Barr, Pat Swindle and Mac Collins, other local and state officials and several civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, Andrew Young and Hosea Williams.
“We have a whole series of papers that people have donated,” he said. “My papers on things I worked on at school are there also. We have so much stuff that we don’t have room to display it all. We need a separate archival building.”
Steely, who was born in Atlanta in 1939 and raised in Cedartown, said politics has always been a favorite topic of his since he grew up with it.
“My daddy was very involved in politics when I was a kid,” he said. “It was all Democrats. It wasn’t until the 1950s that somebody thought about being a Republican. In 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was running for president, my daddy took me to see the man running Ike’s campaign in Cedartown, and said, ‘Here’s a Republican.’ I started working in 1946 in the Gene Talmadge campaign and have been involved in politics ever since.”
After graduating from Cedartown High School, Steely earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., graduating with honors. He received his master’s and doctorate degrees in modern history from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
“I taught history at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tenn. for a year and then all the history department was fired,” he said. “I came to West Georgia College in 1964 and stayed 40 years, retiring in 2004.”
Steely said he was on the committee that brought Gingrich to West Georgia College to teach history.
“We became good friends and when Newt first ran for office in 1974, I was active in his campaign,” he said.
Steely noted that another Carrollton resident, artist Steve Penley, was applauded at the Capitol ceremony.
“He donated a beautiful painting of the Georgia flag, with a picture of James Orglethorpe, the first governor of Georgia,” Steely said. “The governor received it and unveiled it at the ceremony.”