Author inspires kids to creative careers
By Jeff Petersen
Rick Steber grew up thinking everyone had to be a farmer, rancher, teacher or work in the woods.
That’s why the 66-year-old Prineville author talks to from 5,000 to 10,000 kids a year, mostly in rural schools such as extremely remote Frenchglen but also in the urban jungle of Portland.
“When I grew up, nobody ever came around to tell me I could be a writer, photographer, artist or sculptor,” Steber said. “I want to plant the seed that they can do something creative, that they can use their imagination to do something special.”
Thursday, Steber was in La Grande to meet with La Grande Middle School students and to sign books at Looking Glass Books promoting his new offering, “Red White Black.” On Friday, he appeared at Greenwood and Island City elementary schools.
“I spent the first 30 years of my life finding out all the things I didn’t want to do,” said Steber, who went to what was Eastern Oregon College thinking he wanted to be a teacher. He soon realized that was a dead end.
“I don’t really have the patience and dedication that it takes to be a teacher,” Steber said.
Patience? Dedication? Steber spent the better part of four decades researching “Red White Black.” The book is a true story of race and rodeo from the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up. Three men of different skin colors — Jackson Sundown, John Spain and George Fletcher — are brought together during the finals of the Northwest Saddle Bronc Championship. As it says in Steber’s promotional materials, “what happened that September day, the judges’ decision and the reaction of the crowd in the aftermath, forever changed the sport of rodeo, and the way the emerging West was to look at itself.”
The author of more than 30 books now lives in exquisite isolation about 20 miles outside of Prinveville. And he wants to plant seeds in at least a few young minds that they can pursue a similar creative life and be rich, if not in material possessions, in the stuff that matters.
“The greatest of computer games, the movie with the best special effects, cannot hold a candle to the writer’s imagination,” he said. “Since I started writing, there has never been a day when I didn’t want to go to work. Half the time I’m completely alone in the cabin writing. It’s a solitary pursuit, and there is no good fairy to do it for you. The other half of the time, I’m out researching, giving a talk at schools, whatever.”
His home is two miles from the nearest neighbor. Only on clear, crisp nights, when cows are mooing, can he hear the neighbor’s dogs barking, barely.
The reward for his talks in schools is hearing, maybe years later, that some kid was inspired to pursue his dreams.
The creative life, however, is not without risks.
“There really is no money in writing, unless you’re in Hollywood, and then it’s feast or famine,” he said. “It’s got to be a passion, a love. It’s got to be your calling. I always want enough to satisfy my need and not my greed. If I have to float rivers in a 20-year-old drift boat, so be it.”
No big breaks, just hard work
Steber said he never had a big break.
“Anything that came my way is something I earned,” he said. “I put in the time and effort.”
But there are rewards. Steber is the only Oregon author to have won the prestigious Western Writers of America Spur Award — Best Western Novel, for his book “Buy the Chief a Cadillac.” The book, reviews say, explores life on the reservation for three brothers — the alcoholism, violence, greed, and madness — brought on by the white man’s treatment of the tribe, and each brother’s response to the termination settlement on the Klamath Indian Reservation in 1961.”
The hard work pays dividends. But it takes persistence. And that other P, patience.
“The first draft of anything is a collection of bones on a skeleton,” he said. “Each rewrite is like putting muscle, skin, hair and freckles on, making the whole thing come alive. You might think the first draft is great. But unless you set it aside for a while, unless you rewrite 20 or 30 times, it is not going to be as good as you can get it.”
Steber is constantly working on five to seven books at any one time. What’s next? It might be the story with the working title “One Dead Cowboy,” about the all-around champion of the Pendleton Roundup from 1963, Mac Griffith, who grew up in Enterprise,.
“He was the last of the hard-drinking, hard-fighting cowboys,” Steber said. “Today they are more athletes than rowdy guys.”
By the way, he writes more than just books about cowboys. He also writes about songbirds, and is enthusiastic about the comeback of the mountain bluebird in the West. His book “A Promise Given: A True Story of Live, Love … and Bluebirds” tells about one man’s promise to his dying wife that he would bring back a splash of avian color to Oregon.
By all accounts, that effort has been a success. So have been Steber’s efforts to light a spark in the imagination of young people, one speech, one student at a time.