Ralph W. Steen, Texas historian, textbook author, and educator, son of Preston C. and Maude Catherine (Flemming) Steen, was born at Eula, Texas, January 26, 1905. He grew up in Clyde, Texas, where his father operated a hardware store. Steen attended public schools in Clyde, graduating from Clyde High School in 1923. He earned a B.A. from McMurry College in 1927 and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Texas in 1929 and 1934, respectively. Steen's doctoral dissertation, directed by Eugene C. Barker, became the basis for the frequently cited Twentieth Century Texas, while his master's thesis on James E. Ferguson initiated a lifelong interest in Texas political history. Steen taught history at McMurry, 1929–30, worked as teaching assistant at the University of Texas, 1930–32, and taught at Reagan County High School in Big Lake, Texas, 1932–34. In 1934–35 he taught at Hillsboro Junior College and then was named assistant professor of history at Texas A&M College in 1935. Steen taught at Texas A&M, 1935–58, serving as head of the Department of History and Government, 1954–58. He began his career as a textbook author in 1937 with an elementary Texas history. Steen's History of Texas (1939), with revisions, was in use in Texas classrooms well into the 1970s. In 1948 Steen authored The Texas Story, a textbook for high school and college classes. He eventually authored or coauthored a total of ten textbooks for United States and Texas history and government courses. During his twenty-three years at Texas A&M, Steen produced numerous scholarly articles, presented papers, and contributed dozens of articles to the Handbook of Texas (1952), but his name was primarily associated with authorship of textbooks. Steen was elected president of the Texas State Historical Association in April 1957 and reelected in 1958.
Steen married Gladys Edmonds of Bernice, Louisiana, August 20, 1928. His wife graduated from Simmons University in Abilene and earned an M.A. at the University of Texas. An English teacher, Mrs. Steen wrote teaching aids for several of Steen's books. The couple had one child, Joe Ralph Steen. In October 1958 Steen was elected president of Stephen F. Austin State College in Nacogdoches. He served as president from November 1, 1958, to July 31, 1976. During his administration the school grew from fewer than 2,000 students in 1959 to over 11,000 students in 1975, and massive capital improvements transformed the campus. Stephen F. Austin was designated a university in 1969. Steen successfully advanced the school from a teacher's college to an important regional university. While accomplishing this transition, the Steen administration raised standards, improved the quality of the faculty, and emphasized research. Steen was a Democrat and a member of the Methodist church. Other memberships included the chambers of commerce of College Station and Nacogdoches, Rotary, Kiwanis, and the Masonic lodge. Steen was a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association, and was a member of the Southern Historical Association, the Philosophical Society of Texas, and a founding member of the East Texas Historical Association. Steen was elected chairman of the Council of Presidents, State Colleges and Universities, in 1966 and president of the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities in 1972. He was conferred honorary degrees by McMurry College in 1969 and East Texas State University in 1972. Steen was granted the Leadership Award by the Texas State Historical Association in 1979. He retired from the presidency of Stephen F. Austin in July 1976. While serving as president emeritus, Steen in 1978 worked as a consultant for the Coordinating Board, Texas College and University System. He was assigned to study the college and university funding formulas and to recommend modifications in the existing formulas. Steen's The Texas Formula System was published by the Coordinating Board in 1979. Steen died January 30, 1980, in Nacogdoches after suffering a heart attack on the Stephen F. Austin campus one week earlier. In his honor the East Texas Historical Association confers the Ralph W. Steen Award for service annually.