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Steenburgh ’86: “A Witness to All That History”

Charles “Chuck” Steenburgh ’86 holding camera

Chuck Steenburgh ’86 and his camera on the Parade Ground in spring 2022.—Photo by Micalyn Miller, VMI Alumni Agencies.

Sometimes, the best seat in the house is no seat at all.

Charles “Chuck” Steenburgh ’86, unofficial VMI Keydets photographer for the past 24 years, describes his sidelines business as “the best seat in the house,” but at sporting events, Steenburgh’s seat is most often the smooth hardwood of a basketball court or the well-manicured grass of a football field. He can also be found poolside in the Clark King Hall Annex, sometimes climbing onto the diving platform to get shots of the swimmers or water polo players from above.

It’s been a labor of love for almost a quarter-century, but after the 2021–22 academic year, Steenburgh’s regular gig as the Keydets’ photographer came to an end. In July, he moved to Maryland, where he is now assistant vice president for integrated marketing and communications at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

soccer players cheering and hugging

Steenburgh describes this photo as “a random goal celebration for women’s soccer,” but the photo captures much more: Exhilaration, an emotional connection with teammates—and a reminder that not all games are played on sunny days. “People don’t always realize how physical soccer is as a sport,” said Steenburgh.

The son of a retired Navy lieutenant commander, Steenburgh came to VMI with the support of the F.D. Gottwald Scholars Program. “That was just huge,” Steenburgh noted. “My folks were middle class. To afford a VMI education even then would have been a huge challenge.”

When Steenburgh was a cadet, he was in the stands rather than out on the playing field. On the hill, he was a member of the regimental staff whose primary focus was attaining an Army commission. He graduated with distinction, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and a minor in international relations, and served four years in the Army field artillery while simultaneously earning a master’s degree. In 1990, with the support of Col. Patrick “Pat” Mayerchak, then-professor of international studies, he returned to the Institute to teach government.

Steenburgh worked toward a doctorate at the University of Virginia but eventually realized that his heart wasn’t in it. At that point, he moved across post to Smith Hall, where he worked in what’s now the Office of Communications & Marketing alongside Col. Michael M. “Mike” Strickler ’71, then-head of public relations. In 1998, he began his career as a sports photographer, learning as he went and buying his gear from eBay.

“I’m a big gearhead,” he commented. “So, I started with old manual focus film and worked up to autofocus. And then digital came around in 2000. I convinced VMI to invest in an early digital SLR, the old Nikon D1, back around 2000. And I had to lay out how many rolls of film a year it would save us.”

It goes without saying that Steenburgh has seen a seismic change in photographic technology.

At the end of the 1990s, the end of a football game would mean a trip to Walmart for one-hour photo processing, followed by another trip to pick up the negatives. By feeding the negatives into a scanner, Steenburgh could have photos from the day’s game to put on VMI’s website, but the entire process took several hours.

D.J. Covington ’14 grabs the rim after making a shot in Cameron Hall during a game

D.J. Covington ’14 grabs the rim after making a shot in Cameron Hall during a game against Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, part of the College Invitational Tournament. Steenburgh noted that this photo, one of his favorites, ran on the front page of the Roanoke Times’ sports section.—Photos courtesy Chuck Steenburgh ’86.

Today, transmittal takes seconds. “I can pull midgame photos from my camera onto my phone, right, and blast them out to social media during the game,” he noted.

Close relationships have helped Steenburgh thrive as a sports photographer. He and Wade Branner ’83, recently retired VMI associate director of athletic communications, worked together for years, in proximity both at home and on the road. Their offices were next door to each other in Smith Hall when Steenburgh was working in VMI’s Office of Communications & Marketing, and the two often shared a hotel room away from home.

“[Branner] and his team, they’re awesome to work with,” said Steenburgh. “We were very tight. [Branner] is very accommodating.”

Steenburgh’s status as an alumnus, former member of both the faculty and staff, and former tactical officer in barracks has added value, as well. “When you know the school as well as I do, and you cover so many games, you really get a feel for how the teams play and what to do,” Steenburgh commented. “So that’s always been an advantage I’ve had.”

One thing Steenburgh can’t do at games is socialize, even when he sees friends and brother rats in the stands. He’ll wave, but that’s all he has time for when there’s action on the field—safety has to come first.

“I’ve had footballs smack the front of my camera and bust up my lenses,” he stated. “I’ve had football players run into me.”

Thankfully, though, Steenburgh has never sustained a serious injury on the sidelines. His motto? “Get the heck out of the way—live to shoot another day.”

Steenburgh describes being there for the magic moments—such as the basketball team’s victory over Kentucky in 2008 or the football team’s clinching of the Southern Conference championship in spring 2021—as “priceless.”

“You’re there as a witness to all that history,” he stated.

And even as he’s getting spectacular shots, Steenburgh is also giving back to the Institute.

“Everybody has their reasons for trying to give back to VMI,” he commented. “The sports photography is kind of my way to still keep my hand in things, to still do things that help the Institute and support the athletes, the competitors.”

And even though he’s moved out of state, Steenburgh hasn’t abandoned his favorite sports teams. For the big events on post and games in the Northern Virginia/Maryland area, Keydet fans can expect to see him and his gear bag on the sidelines.

Editor’s Note: To see more of Steenburgh’s photos, visit sportsphotoguy.com.

  • Mary Price

    Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist

    The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.