Duane A. Steele died at home in Provincetown on March 8, 2023 of an interstitial lung disease. He would have liked the directness of that sentence, though definitely not its meaning. He was 83.
Duane never went gently into anything. But he did have a soft spot for obituaries. In Duane’s view, screwing up an obituary was a sacrilege. He enforced that and other edicts as owner of the Provincetown Advocate from 1976 until 2000, when the owner of the then-startup Provincetown Banner, Alix Ritchie, bought and subsumed the Advocate into her publication.
Comparing the Banner to the Advocate, Mary-Jo Avellar, town moderator and Duane’s wife for 40 years, said the Banner sold itself as the “kinder, gentler newspaper,” a clear rebuke of Duane’s pugnacious style.
“There is nothing kind and gentle about the news,” Mary-Jo told the Independent. “Duane covered the news the way the news presented itself. We often bore the brunt of that by people pulling their advertising. But you could not blackmail Duane. He was a newsman.”
Duane Steele was born to Alden and Clotilda (Medeiros) Steele at their home in Provincetown on March 25, 1939. After graduating from Provincetown High School in 1956, he served in the Navy, then attended the University of Massachusetts.
He started working at the Springfield Union in 1965 while still in college, said Brian Jones, a friend who worked alongside him in Springfield. Both of them took jobs at the Providence Journal in 1966. Jones continued working at the Journal for 35 years.
“Duane was an inspirational figure to me,” Jones said. “He had enthusiasm for the story, both in person and in print.”
In 1976, Duane returned to his hometown to buy the Advocate, which had been published continuously since 1869.
Duane was “passionate about the close-knit, sometimes contentious community at the tip of the Cape peninsula — celebrating its history and myths, and saying he’d been blessed with a Tom-Sawyer-Huckleberry-Finn boyhood, climbing trees and catching tadpoles,” reported Jones in an obituary he wrote for the family.
Duane and his first wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Steele-Jeffers, wanted to own a newspaper. And they wanted to provide their children with the idyllic experiences he had growing up in Provincetown, Jones wrote.
Not only did he and Mary-Jo live at the newspaper building at 100 Bradford St., but their daughter Rose was the business manager, and son Peter worked as a reporter and an editor. “I started working for Duane as a kid. It was awesome-slash-horrible,” wrote Peter in a mock edition of the Advocate written by newsroom veterans for his father’s 80th birthday. “He could be funny and gregarious, ferocious and unforgiving, kind and generous — sometimes all within the same hour. I loved him for it, and I hated him for it.”
Sue Areson, now a Truro Select Board member and a former editor at the Providence Journal, is also an Advocate alum. She wrote in the mock edition how Duane would issue frequent dos and don’ts of journalism, which the staff labeled “Duane Steele Lessons.”
One rule, Areson said, was that reporters, after covering a local council or board meeting, should immediately write their stories, even if publication was days away. “If you don’t get it done and town hall burns down,” Duane would say, “then the only thing we’d have in the paper is the news of town hall burning down.”
This reporter, too, is a veteran of the Advocate. Duane was my first editor. He never once yelled at me, even when I backed his Econoline van into a telephone pole, leaving an incriminating dent in the side panel. I refused to admit my culpability. Duane looked at me, amused, and said only, “I know you did it,” before changing the subject.
Duane and Mary-Jo owned the Red Inn from 1986 to 1990 when it was heavily damaged by an arson fire that was never solved. Mary-Jo said that is the one chapter in their long lives together that she would like to forget.
Mary-Jo and Duane met outside St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church at his nephew’s confirmation, Mary-Jo said. They reconnected when she ran for selectman in the 1970s; they were married in 1982. She won her first race in 1976 and stayed on the board until 1990.
Duane loved politics, though covering it became complicated with his wife on the select board. During this same era, his ex-wife, Betty, was also on the select board. Betty eventually married Jim Jeffers, who briefly worked as the town manager.
Duane also loved history. In 2013, when he contributed to an oral history project for the UMass Archives, he described losing the Advocate.
“The paper was 131 years old, and it was revered by the people of Provincetown,” he said. “But anyway, it’s over and done. Now, it’s a part of Provincetown history.”
Duane is survived by his wife, Mary-Jo Avellar; his daughter, Rose Steele of Eastham; and his son, Peter Steele of Provincetown; and by their mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Steele-Jeffers of Eastham. Also surviving him are his grandchildren: Alexandre Soulard Steele of Montreal, Canada; Anna Rose Stevenson of Eastham; Lily Hope Stevenson of Eastham and Warsaw, Poland; and Vanessa Elizabeth Steele of Auburn, Maine.
His sisters, Rose Marie Stephan, Lana Rae Argir, Michelle Kender, and Bonnie McGhee, all predeceased him.
A memorial service is planned for the spring at a date to be announced.