by Nancy Dashwood
HOWARD LAKE Although Penny Steele has enjoyed a long career as a Hennepin County Commissioner and a bakery owner, her heart has always beaten quickly to a musical beat.
Steele is the new music coordinator and organist at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Howard Lake, a position which grabbed her attention long before she actually applied for it.
Finding home in the hymnal
Steele said when she was growing up, her father worked for McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. This meant the family moved often.
Steele grew up primarily in southern California and St. Louis, MO. She remembers loving music from a very early age, and being delighted to receive a hymnal of her own.
“I decided I needed to find a hymn to learn,” she said. “I picked a short one thinking it would be easiest.” Her selection was “Take My Life and Let It Be.”
“It was not easy,” Steele said. “Hymns are not easy to play. I remember how happy playing from that hymnal made me. I think church music was deeply planted in me.”
Playing in church
The year Steele was in the eighth grade, she became the regular organist for a small Lutheran church in St. Louis.
The choir director of that church was a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Steele indicated that she was drawn to St. Olaf for her own college career because of the school’s “rich church music tradition.”
Steele enjoyed performing with the St Olaf Choir. “The St. Olaf Choir’s original purpose was to bring the Gospel through music,” she said.
Steele earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Olaf, with a major in music. Her musical mediums are voice, organ, and piano.
Steele also sang in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Chamber chorus with Robert Shaw.
“It doesn’t get much nicer than singing great music with superb choral organizations,” Steele said. She indicated sacred music has always been her favorite.
Steele and her husband, Paul, have three sons, Kevin, Mark, and David.
Steele has always enjoyed political science, and eagerly volunteered with the Minnesota Caucus system. Her work there did not go unnoticed.
Eventually, Steele decided to run for the Hennepin County Board.
“I was encouraged to run for office, and finally decided to run for the county board (in 1994) when then State Senator Pat McGowan, along with others encouraged me.”
Her young sons were also an impetus for her political involvement. “I ran never expecting to win, but thought it would show my boys that when you believe in important ideas, they are worth hard work and investment,” Steele said.
She went on to serve as a county commissioner for 14 years, a life experience she never expected.
“No one was more shocked over my election than me,” Steele said. “I was outspent by about five to one. I ran never expecting to win.” She enjoyed championing school success, and the importance of libraries during her tenure as commissioner.
Steele said her husband was a constant support for her during those busy years.
New recipe for life
Along with music, Steele had always enjoyed baking. She honed her skills and took master classes in cake decorating in Chicago, IL. While serving as county commissioner, she often baked for colleagues and friends.
According to a Star-Tribune article which ran in March 2009, while still working as a commissioner, Steele baked a jail cake for the head of the county workhouse, animal cakes for colleagues’ kids, and a birthday cake for then DFL speaker of the Minnesota House Margaret Anderson Kellliher.
“We’re bridging partisanship though cake,” she quipped to the Star Tribune.
At the end of her term in 2008, Steele did not seek re-election, instead preferring to immerse herself and son, Mark, in flour and fondant.
She opened Penny Steele Custom Cakes in 2009. Mark was an aerospace engineering student, and used portions of that skill set to design and create fantastical confections.
Steele specialized in wedding cakes, even making a spectacular pink multi-tiered creation for Mark’s wedding to Bethany Paulsen.
Steele said many of her wedding cakes incorporated elements of the bride’s dress. She put countless hours into the wedding cake for Mark and Bethany’s big day.
“The color on the bottom tier was to match Bethany’s dress,” Steele said. “I copied the band on the train of her dress, both in color and motif.”
That cake featured Irish cream-filled chocolate fudge cake, and raspberry white chocolate-filled yellow butter cake. Steele indicated a cake of that size would serve 250 people. Just in case, Steele had three layer identical backup cakes ready to go.
St. John’s called to her
While still a county commissioner, Steele often had multi-county meetings in Litchfield. To get there from her home in Rogers, she drove through Howard Lake and Waverly. She found the area enchanting.
Last year, she saw an employment ad for the St. John’s musical position listed on the American Guild of Organists website.
She said she initially did not think much about the job, because she was serving a church on the east side of St. Paul, and was preparing to launch a fresh program there last fall. (Steele also works for Three Rivers Park District.)
The thought of St. John’s and Howard Lake would not leave her alone. Every so often, she would check the website to see if the position was still open. She calculated the distance from her home to her current church and to St. John’s, and discovered each job involved a 45-minute commute.
“I could not get St. John’s out of my mind,” Steele said. Late last year, she sent an inquiring email to St. John’s about the musical position.
“I chatted with Pastor Koch and was blown away by his servant heart, musical prowess, and dedication to our Savior,” Steele said.
An interview was scheduled for the day after Christmas. “It was a very cordial and professional interview with the music and worship committee,” Steele recalled.
Soon enough, the musical position was hers. She officially started at St. John’s Sunday, April 8. Unfortunately, Steele’s recently broken right wrist made it impossible for her to play that day.
Pastor Koch stated that following worship, congregants enjoyed cake and a time of getting to know Steele.
After most people had left the church, Steele headed straight for the sanctuary’s organ. Although Koch implored her not to play, she was determined.
“She was pleading with me to let her try it,” Koch stated. “She injured her right wrist, which is the primary playing hand, but she was playing the right-handed parts with her left hand, and the left-handed parts with her feet on the pedals. It was remarkable. I can’t wait to hear her play with both hands once she’s fully recovered,” he said.
Steele has difficulty in narrowing her musical favorites list down to just one piece of music.
When pressed, Steele said she would choose an arrangement by Stephen Starke.
“He has taken the ‘Te Deum,’ an ancient hymn, written the text to fit the hymn tune ‘Thaxed,’ a work composed by Gustav Holst,” Steele said.
“Sometimes there are hymns that do a lot of great things but are not as ‘lovable,” she said “It’s like Beethoven’s ninth symphony: great music and very beloved and approachable.”
Steele is already pleased she listened to the call that led her to Howard Lake.
“The Lutheran church has a great tradition of hymns and scared music,” Steele said. “At St. John’s, I hope to further expand the musical offerings for the children in our community.”