Those who knew John Steppling as the Calexico Chronicle publisher for decades always considered him a role model due to his involvement and contributions to the city.
As a journalist, he was known for his integrity in reporting the happenings in Calexico and people considered him a mentor and friend. Steppling was in some ways the ”Walter Cronkite of Calexico” for supporting the journalism industry and owning a hyper-local border newspaper for more than 30 years. He was often in the middle of business and political conversations, thus feeling the pulse of the city.
“He had a radio voice. He should have been on radio announcer, but he was like a teacher and he loved to write about history,” said Hildy Carrillo, who became the managing editor of the Chronicle upon Steppling’s retirement in 1991.
City politics was Steppling’s forte, though in a gentlemanly manner, Carrillo recalled.
“He did get into the politics of things but he wasn’t a ‘hit-below-the-belt’ kind of guy. He very was fair. He didn’t like cussing and had a loud voice, not because he was scolding you. It was loud because he sounded like a megaphone. But he was really a sweetheart,” she said.
Carrillo said Steppling was an art collector and he donated all his collection to the San Diego State University, Imperial Valley Campus, explaining if they ever need money they could sell the pieces. Steppling also worked with then-Calexico City Council Member Rollie Carrillo and others to bring the SDSU campus to Calexico. The campus art gallery is named after him.
“His editorials told the truth as to how many people felt but did not express it,” said Loli Torres, who worked for the Calexico Chronicle for 17 years. “He also started the project on Arbor Day of planting trees in the park and other areas. There were just too many projects that he inspired through the city.”
She added, “He would always hire the youth and start training them in the back shop or reporting sports.”
In an essay read at an event organized by the Calexico Historical Commission in 2014 celebrating the 110 years of the Calexico Chronicle, Diana Meza Scott wrote Steppling fought for the city on a wide range of issues over the years and was an eloquent speaker and ambassador.
“As a journalist, his stories were always accurate and fair, qualities he kept throughout his career,” Meza Scott wrote. “He detested closed-door, back-room meetings in local government and made sure citizens knew from the outset that the people’s business should be done in the bright light of day.
Torres recalled every week Steppling would fire his staff but would welcome them back later in the day to finish the job.
“We would just walk away and then back into the building and he would start giving us instructions as if nothing had been said,” Torres remembered.
Steppling was a member of the Calexico Rotary Club, Elks Lodge, Calexico Chamber of Commerce and served as the chairman of the Calexico hospital board. He also organized charitable fundraising events.
Torres said even though she was his employee, he taught her a lot about life, people and how to give back to Calexico.
“Even though I didn’t want to leave the Chronicle, our business had been affected and our payroll checks would bounce so he thought it was going under,” she said. “He encouraged Eddie Albanez from the employment office to give me an opportunity and I got hired by the state. I wanted to remain, but he was looking out for me as a younger mother.”
Meza Scott worked for Steppling for 10 years and agreed that he was a mentor that cared a lot about his employees.
“He was always by our side. Though separated by generations, I would be spellbound or scared to death by his firm but gentle counsel, his admonitions about the importance of education, ethical behavior, morality, never taking shortcuts, absolute accuracy and double-checking, then triple-checking,” Meza Scott stated.
As the Calexico Chronicle celebrates its 115th anniversary this year, John Steppling’s legacy and memory are highly regarded for his journalism and mentorship for many young people who later became community leaders.