Straight Talk – Mike Steger

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Mike Steger

FA: Mike, you have a great story to tell. Part of which is that you are the foster son of the great Fred Bear. I know you lost both your parents at an early age and your Aunt Henrietta took you in and raised you after your parents died, correct?

MS: Yes

Fred and Henrietta Bear

FA: What were the circumstances? How old were you when you lost your parents and what, if any, recollections of them do you have?

MS: My mother died when I was about year and a half from complications of a gall bladder operation. My father died when I was ten from a ruptured appendix. Naturally I have no recollection of my mother and not too much of my father.

FA: Do you have any siblings? If so where did they go after this tragic event?

MS: Yes. My sister, Monica, was about a year younger than me. When I went to live with Baba (our pet name for Henrietta) Monica went to another aunt and uncle (Baba’s brother). I also had a half-brother and a half-sister. They were raised by our step-mother. My sister and the half-brother have passed away. I am in touch with my half-sister who still lives in our old house in Red Granite, WI.

FA: Thankfully your Aunt Henrietta took you in. Tell us about her.

MS: Baba’s first husband (uncle Tom) was a rural mail carrier in Wisconsin. He died in 1945 of lung cancer. Baba was a Norwegian lady. She grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. Baba was a dedicated homemaker and ran a neat house. She was very encouraging and was the force that drove me to apply for West Point, entering in 1945.

Henrietta Bear in the kitchen 1990.

FA: Your Aunt became the wife of Fred Bear. How did she meet Fred?

MS: When uncle Tom died, Baba needed to work. She became a hostess at several resorts (Florida and Michigan). At the Michigan resort (Blaney Park Lodge) she met Fred when he came up there with some hunting buddies for the deer season.

FA: What were your early impressions of Fred?

MS: Baba asked me to meet Fred because she was thinking of marrying him. So, during my summer leave from West Point in 1947 I spent a week in Grayling with Fred. It was there he taught me to fly fish for which I am eternally thankful. I spent the rest of my leave with Baba in Oshkosh and told her she better marry this guy (I think her mind was already made up).

FA: What was it like growing up with a legend in the house? Did you even realize what a great man and future legend Fred was?

MS: I did not ‘grow up’ in the house with Fred. I was a 20-year old at West Point when they married. Upon graduating (1949) I went in the Air Force. I spent every vacation in Grayling. Though I never lived in Grayling, my family stayed there the year I was in Vietnam. It was Fred’s idea that he be known as my “foster father”. It was immediately evident that Fred was a superb hunter and business man and simply wonderful.

FA: Fred was probably the reason thousands of young men and women got into archery. Was he as big an influence for you getting into the sport? Did you ever fool around in the archery business?

MS: No, I never got involved in the archery business. I organized and developed archery clubs and field ranges, though, every where I was stationed.

Mike and Fred in Grayling, 1964 before Mike went to Viet Nam.

FA: You decided the military was your calling and you were accepted into the prestigious West Point Academy. What did you have to do to even be accepted and what was it like to be cadet there?

MS: I applied through my Wisconsin congressman. While waiting for acceptance, I enlisted in the Navy aviator program. I wanted to be a pilot. Baba said that when I came to live with her she asked, “What did I want to do when I grew up?” I replied, “Be a pilot.” The appointment came through while I was in the Navy (they had closed pilot training) and West Point was a three year course with pilot training (later changed to four years and no flying). From the time I entered the navy to be a pilot, it took me six and a half years to get wings. My days as a cadet are becoming hazy. I had no trouble with academics nor the discipline. Last year we went back for our 60th reunion.

FA: You have had a long military career, many of those as a pilot, many as a fighter pilot. What was your most dangerous, rewarding mission? What aircraft did you fly and enjoy the most?

MS: I accumulated 4400 flying hours, almost all in single aircraft, My most rewarding assignment was as an advisor to a Vietnamese fighter squadron flying the A-1 (Douglas Skyraider). Two flights stand out. One was ejecting from an F-84 at twenty-seven thousand feet (1952) and the other was ditching an A-1 (1965) in the bay shortly after take off.

Mike with his Skyraider in Viet Nam 1965.

FA: Dick Mauch one of Fred’s most trusted employee and friend flies. Did you ever fly with him?

MS: No

FA: You have moved around a lot. Where did you go and what were some of your favorite places?

MS: My assignments went something like this: Germany, flying F-84s and F-86s,; Texas as an instructor pilot (T-28 and T-33): Texas, grad school (Math); Air Force Academy, math instructor; Vietnam; Pentagon; Air Force Systems Command, Maryland; Space and Missiles Systems Command, Los Angles; Space and Missiles Test Center, California. Throughout 30 years in the Air Force, I thought every assignment was the best one. Some of my favorite places were Texas, Air Force Academy and Vandenberg AFB, Ca.

FA: Did Fred entice you into bow hunting? Did you ever join Fred on any of his adventures?

MS: My uncle Tom got interest in archery about 1941. Powder and shells were unavailable during WW II, so archery was a way to do some hunting. I went on several hunting trips with him (uncle Tom) as a teenager. I didn’t do any hunting while at West Point and very little in Germany. I did hunt with Fred several times; once in Michigan (1953); Nebraska (Dick Mauch, 1964}, and twice at Grousehaven in 1986 and 1987.

Papa Bear was a mentor to hundreds of kids and this boy scout is learning from the master.

FA: To me Fred seemed to have a great sense of humor. Any funny anecdotes you’d like to tell?

MS: Fred was a great story teller and I heard many over the years. One I remember was a story he liked to tell about me: When I ditched the A-1 in Vietnam, I had to jettison some bombs. There were some ships in the bay and I had to dodge them while jettisoning (so as not to hit them). I got a medal from the Vietnamese for this. Fred’s version was that I was the only one pilot who got a medal for missing the target.

FA: What was Henrietta’s impression of the archery business? Did she realize just how famous Fred was?

MS: I’m sure she was well aware of Fred’s prominence in archery and business.

FA: Do you think she fretted when Fred was on the dangerous hunts or did he downplay it at home so she wouldn’t worry?

MS: Yes, she was always worried. She was a worry wort. I tried to console her by telling an old Chinese saying: “Worrying is good for you, because the things you worry about don’t come to pass.” But I don’t think it worked. Fred always down played his danger.

Fred in his environment.

FA: Who are some people you have met that were friends of Fred’s that made an impression on you?

MS: Too many to list. But a few are: Dick Mauch, KK Knickerbocker, Joe Engle and a whole bunch of Bear employees.

FA: Where did you meet your wife Barbara? Tell us about that.

MS: We met in Texas when I was going through flying school. I got my wings in Arizona and then was assigned to Germany. We decided to get married after I got there. It turned out to be better to have Barbara come over there than for me to go back to the states, get married, then go back to Germany and apply for my wife to come over. We had a honeymoon in Switzerland. Our first child was born in Germany.

FA: How many children do you have?

MS: Five, Linda born in Germany, Shannon and Nancy born in Texas, and Fred and Julie born in Colorado.

Papa Bear with Mike's son Fred 1960.

FA: What about grandchildren?

MS: We have nine

FA: Are you retired? If not where are you working? If you are, what are your hobbies?

MS: I stayed in the Air Force for 30 years. That adds up to 35 years in the military (Air Force 30, West Point 4, and Navy 1) After retiring from the Air Force I worked for 12 years on the shuttle program as a design engineer at Vandenberg. Also, I worked part time teaching math in the fall and as a tax preparer in the spring. Last year was my last teaching and I just finished my last year working for H & R Block. My active hobbies are bird watching, stamp collecting and hunting.

FA: I had the pleasure of meeting you and your wife at the 2007 National Pope & Young Convention. To have attended the event, you must have a keen interest in archery. Do you still shoot a bow?

MS: I did a lot of tournament shooting in the past, but haven’t done any lately. The only shooting I do now is practicing for deer hunting.

Old friends Dick Mauch (left) in Africa with Papa Bear.

FA: Are you still actively bow hunting?

MS: I have been hunting on Vandenberg AFB ever since being assigned here in 1976. Have taken about 25 deer since then.

FA: What was your most memorable archery moment?

MS: Probably the first deer I got with a bow. I first hunted deer with a bow when I was 15. It was seventeen years later when I finally got one. That deer qualified me for the Pope and Young club

FA: Fred and Henrietta must have been very proud of you and how your life turned out. You accomplished so much, as a Son, a man in uniform, a father and husband. How much of this was Fred & Henrietta’s guidance?

MS: I attribute a lot to Baba’s early guidance. Fred inspired me to do the best I could and he certainly piqued my continuing interest in archery. Every thing I have done in my life I did for three people: Baba, Fred and my wife, Barb. In my mind my thoughts always were, “Would they approve of what I am doing.”

Fred and family 1951.

FA: I was only a friend and I know it bothered me to see Fred those last few years limited by an oxygen tank. You don’t want to see your heroes get sick, yet they do. He was so brave and strong, he never let on like he was sick a day I saw him. Where do you think he found that strength?

MS: Fred also grew up on a farm. At an early age he became self sufficient and he developed traits that lasted all his life. I think his upbringing led to all the innovations he introduced to archery.

FA: Who from Fred’s circle of friends do you still keep in touch with?

MS: Dick Mauch

FA: Fred was one of, if not, the most visible, vital personality in the sport of archery? What do you think his worry and his optimism would be if he were alive today?

MS: Fred did not care for the compound bow. But he would be amazed at the advances in equipment. He would like to see archery (hunting and tournament) grow.

Fred, Henrietta and bowhunter Billy Ellis 1988

FA: You grew up in the sport so what advice for youngsters reading these words would you like to offer?

MS: Do your best to model your life after Fred Bear.

FA: Fred loved laughter. Can you tell me a funny anecdote or two that the public may not know about our old friend?

MS: I refer you to Fred’s humor above. Fred had the ability to talk to anyone: hunter, non-hunter, big shot or average Joe. One time in the early 50s he heard that Arthur Godfrey was going to be at Grousehaven. This was about 50 miles from Grayling. Fred threw some bows and arrows in his car and drove down there and introduced himself. It turned out that Godfrey was meeting with some Air Force generals and the owner of Grousehaven (who had been the vice president running the GM plant in Detroit making bombers during WW II). After about 30 minutes, Fred had them all out side shooting arrows. This started his friendship with Godfrey. As a result, Fred appeared on Godfrey’s show, hunted with him in Africa and had a camp at Grousehaven for many years to which he would invite top archery dealers and salesmen.

3 Responses to "Straight Talk – Mike Steger"

  1. Nancy Steger Feathers   2011/11/14 at 7:37 am

    Excellent article. Thoroughly enjoyed it. And very informative and enlightening.

  2. Kathleen Kalina   2011/11/30 at 4:08 pm

    I enjoyed this article because I met Fred Bear many times as a child, because my father (Andrew Kalina) knew him. My father was deeply involved in the Archery business and made his own bows.

  3. Bill Earle   2012/02/04 at 7:34 pm

    Enjoyed the article as my Grandfather, the owner of Blaney Park, and my father, Bill Earle Sr. Was the Manager, Both knew Fred Bear well. I lived a Blaney from1952-1966, and remember Fred coming up for deer season,speaking and showing his films in the Inn to all the hunters. As you probably know Fred got his 1st bow killed deer at Blaney and made his first film there as well. Thank you for the memories.

    Bill Earle, Midland Michigan