SARASOTA, Fla. -- The arts scene on the Suncoast attracts many people who've been very successful in their careers to move here when they retire -- like this week's Amazing Woman of the Suncoast: classical musician, lecturer, and broadcaster June LeBell.
LeBell was the first female announcer on a major commercial classical music station. For 30 years she was on WQXR, and we are so fortunate that this amazing woman now makes Sarasota her home.
She was born in New York and raised in Manhattan. "I went to the High School of Music and Art and performed. It became the Fame school…the one they made the movie about."
Her singing talent won her a place at any of the prestigious music schools. "I chose Mannes (College of Music), then switched to Hartt (College of Music) in Hartford Connecticut.”
She went to work right away. “I sang with the New York Philharmonic, Phillip Berstein conducting.”
Then in 1972 her world changed. She was engaged to Michael Rabin, one of the greatest violinist of the 20th century. "I found him lying on the floor. He had died, he had slipped on the floor and cracked his skull."
He was 35 years old.
"I was asked to be a guest on a program on WQXR that Robert Sherman was hosting. He mentioned to me they were looking for a minority announcer."
By minority he meant woman. "He said there are no females on any classical station anywhere in the U.S."
LeBell got the job and she was with the station for almost 30 years. "I met every famous living musician that you can think of, plus I had the background in music and I had been singing with a lot of these people. They knew me as a musician and they trusted me."
But then September 11th changed her life forever.
She was living very close to Ground Zero. "I was knocked out of bed. I took my dog...I took her and we were evacuated on a boat."
She interviewed Mayor Giuliani many times in the following days, but she had had enough. She decided to retire to Sarasota, a city she'd visited often with her parents.
Within six months she was hard at work in the arts. "I did it first as a volunteer for the opera, for the ballet…I started writing for all of them. Then I got a job with the Observer as a music critic."
She sang with Gloria Musicae, then became executive director. She was the first manager of the Glenridge Performing Arts Center, and brings famous musicians in for her Musical Mondays, which are a part of the Sarasota Lifetime Learning Program.
“A lot of different jobs but they all stemmed from the same thing: love of music and study of music."
She had never been married. Then about 5 years ago, she retired as conductor and director of 7th Army Symphony Orchestra, and manager of the New York Philharmonic asked her out. "We went out on a date, and we were married May 1st."
The two were meant for each other.
Then 2 years ago she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "I had a complete hysterectomy. Days later started chemo had high doses every three weeks for six months."
She lost her hair. But even completely bald she never missed an appearance or an appointment.
Now she's well and she's preparing for her Music Mondays. "I bring famous people from all over the world who are musicians. They either perform or use video."
And the life lesson she shares with the rest of us? "Everything that we've learned before can be used for a different purpose later on. Everything I learned as a singer, as a musician, I used as an interviewer, and even reading commercials or radio or being on air."
She is also a great cook. She has written Kitchen Classics from the Philharmonic. It contains recipes from famous musicians eating around a performance, and it contains music to match the recipes.