ITHACA, N.Y. — Bill Steele, a former Cornell Chronicle writer and well-known folk musician, died at age 86 in an Ithaca house fire last week.

Steele was a science writer for the Cornell Chronicle and retired last March, according to the Cornell Chronicle. A longtime friend of Steele’s, Wendy Grossman, told the Chronicle, “He was funny … he liked to tell stories; in person, he was very much like he was onstage as a folk singer. He told funny stories, he was interesting, he was smart. He was interested in science and the world around him.”

Though state police have not officially released his name, the Cornell Chronicle and other obituaries have identified Steele as the 86-year-old man who died in the house fire Dec. 17 in Ithaca.

The fire started in the kitchen of his home Dec. 17 on Christopher Circle in Ithaca. Firefighters from Cayuga Heights, Ithaca and Lansing were able to quickly extinguish the fire, but when they searched the house, they found the resident had died of smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire is still being investigated and could take months to complete, state police said.

Steele is known for writing the environmental anthem, “Garbage!” in 1969. The song asks, “What will we do when there’s nothing left to read, and there’s nothing left to hear, and there’s nothing left to need, and there’s nothing left to wear, and there’s nothing left to alk about, and nothing left to walk upon, and nothing left to care about, and nothing left to ponder on … and there’s nothing left to be but garbage.”

Most of his songs are available to download and listen to on his website. Listen to “Garbage!” below.

It quickly became an underground hit and was included in the Sierra Club’s “Survival Songbook” in 1971 and also appears in the folk singers’ bible, “Rise Up Singing,” and “Earth and Spirit Songbook,” according to a 2009 article in the Cornell Chronicle honoring the 40th anniversary of the song.

Regarding the song, Steele wrote in his website, “I wrote this when I read that San Francisco Bay was about half the size it had been when Sir Francis Drake first sailed into it. I wasn’t expecting it to become an environmental anthem. Most topical songs quickly become outdated; it’s unfortunate this one hasn’t.” He said further to the Cornell Chronicle, “From the environmental standpoint, it’s frustrating that we haven’t done anything about it, and that this problem is still with us after all this time.”

Steele is also known for the song, “Chocolate Chip Cookies,” which is also the title of his second album after “Garbage! and other Garbage.”

Steele graduated from Cornell University with a degree in psychology in 1954. While an undergraduate, he wrote for the now-defunct magazine The Widow, a student-run humor magazine. The Cornell Chronicle said Steele’s love of science and computers brought him back to Cornell, where he became a temporary writer for the Cornell News Service in 1994 and shortly after, took a permanent position with the Chronicle as a science writer, a position he held until he retired in March.

Read more about Steele from the Cornell Chronicle.

Featured image: Bill Steele in 2009. (Photo by Robert Barker/Cornell Brand Communications)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.