Lee Peterson’s story could only have happened in Sarasota, where she moved with her husband, the late J. Robert Peterson, around 1993 ...
... Passionate supporters of research to find new treatments for mental illness and to reduce its stigma, they undertook a fundraising effort, first in conjunction with NARSAD then via their own charity, Sunshine from Darkness. An unabashed and perpetually enthusiastic advocate and a brilliant partygiver, Lee Peterson, with Bob Peterson always at her side, raised more than $5 million in 16 years. They also sponsored an annual symposium presenting leading-edge research that attracted as many as 1,500 people.
Sunshine from Darkness has just announced a merger with IMRHO (International Mental Health Research Organization), a similar entity founded in California by the Staglin family, friends and allies of the Petersons, in the fight against brain disorders. The details are to be announced at an event March 14. Consistent with Lee Peterson’s policy of always giving her supporters an exceptional experience, it will be the first party held in the newly-renovated Cà d‘Zan Room and Terrace, at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.
Here Lee Peterson shares her recollections, including her experiences with some of the celebrities who came to Sarasota to accept the “Luminary Award” she created to honor their willingness to discuss their own illnesses.
I don’t remember really thinking that I worked very hard. I just thought that whatever I was doing was important to whatever project I was working on. The symposium was always a very big production. But people were just so interested and anybody that came was thrilled and delighted because they hadn’t heard about a lot of the work that was being done.
Mike Wallace was the first Luminary Award winner. It was 2003 – 10 years ago, isn’t that amazing? I had never met him before. He was an absolutely delightful gentleman; he wanted to ask me questions about what my husband and I had been doing and, of course, we had many, many things to tell him. He was funny, charming, intelligent and very, very bright. I used to tease him and make him talk even more; we did make each other laugh.
Oh, my goodness … Art Buchwald was an experience. He was so funny … he sat here in the other room and people were asking him questions. There was a ballgame going on or something like that and he was saying, “Listen, I have to hear this ballgame so I really can’t listen to everything you have to say.”
People really had no idea what Barbara Cook was like. They just saw this big, heavy lady and they didn’t really think anything of her at all. But I knew, because I had heard her many, many times. And I told people, “You’ve got to come to this concert because she is sensational. She will just have you in the palm of her hand.” Between the singing and the personality and the things she said about how important it was to her to be doing what she was doing … anybody who was listening loved it.
Until I got to know Virginia Toulmin, I really didn’t realize what an extraordinary woman she was. She gave me so much money! She just said that whatever you’re doing is so important and nobody pays much attention to it and I would like to do as much about that as I can. She loved Robert — who didn’t? She was a wonderful, charming, lovely lady that anyone would care about.
When Patty Duke got up to talk, you thought she was going to be very serious and make people uncomfortable. She knew she had had all these problems. But she was really hysterically funny … as sweet and dear as she could be.
Dorothy Hamill was utterly charming and good-looking, but a little bit shy. She didn’t think she was such a big deal, but everybody else thought she was absolutely wonderful. And when she went over and kissed Robert, he thought it was a big deal!
Both the (John) Nashes helped us in any way they could. A lot of people don’t realize how important the film, “A Beautiful Mind,” was. When it came out, I was flabbergasted, absolutely flabbergasted. That movie was as clear and as well done as anybody could ever do it. It was a terrible, terrible thing going on and people didn’t have a clue of how terrible this illness could be.
In the beginning, Flori Roberts was with me all of the time and very, very involved with marketing … Jessica Ventimiglia was very interested in anything I did so she would be there ... Margaret Wise got to know me and her late mother got to know me even better … Jewel Ash is an angel from heaven who came to me, it was like she was my family.
Any time Bob wanted to call Emily Walsh, he really thought he was disturbing her. But she would just say, “Please, call any time.” She never forgot that Bob and I were doing something that was terribly important to us and to her and her family.
The Staglin family got this whole thing going in California with IMRHO. We talked to them and said it would really be wonderful if we could work with you. Bob always wanted to do that. So the merger with IMRHO is definitely a natural … it’s a very good organization and they have raised millions and millions of dollars.
Bob and I were just so delighted that we could be involved with something like this that was very, very personal. He was as open to doing that as you could possibly be. You know Bob … everybody loved him. He was just a great guy; if he could do anything to help anybody, he always did it.
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