Julia Rohr has a reputation for being strict.
The 94-year-old music teacher admittedly has little patience for slackers.
Her pupils and her colleagues know this.
Even her daughter, Julie Rohr McHugh — a bubbly 65-year-old for whom Rohr purchased her private school on Fruitville Road — refers to Rohr as a disciplinarian, followed by this label: “old school.”
“Kids used to say they felt sorry for me,” McHugh says. “They didn’t know my mother wasn’t stern at home.”
Stern is the last thing Rohr appears to be on this particular morning. Dressed in a green tracksuit decorated with fabric, painted butterflies, Rohr teeters merrily across the lobby at Julie Rohr Academy on a gold cane bedecked in rhinestones.
McHugh, Rohr’s only child, trails closely behind. An ageless mother-daughter duo, the two are inseparable. Together they’ve touched thousands of lives in Sarasota and have served as tireless champions for youth music programs.
Their greatest legacy is, of course, the academy that bears their name.
With its focus on visual and performing arts, JRA has staged approximately 150 musicals over the course of 37 years.
Rohr, with her pink lipstick, flashy cane and halo of white hair, is the grande dame of the school, which she purchased in 1973 when it was a rundown day care with only 17 kids on the roster.
She famously bought the building so McHugh, who followed in her mother’s footsteps, would leave her post teaching music at a Fort Lauderdale middle school and return to Sarasota for work.
“You know how mothers are,” Rohr says. “I was determined to have my daughter near.”
The plan worked.
McHugh took over the school the following year and embarked on the herculean task of overhauling a neglected building with grease splatters so thick on the kitchen walls it took weeks to scrape them clean.
“I thought it would take a miracle worker to change this place,” McHugh says. “But Mother kept saying we could do it. I tell ya, when she sets her mind to something … ”
“What?” Rohr asks. “You’re the one who did it.”
Humble as she is, Rohr has set her mind to many things since she and her late husband, former Sarasota Concert Band Director Arthur Rohr, moved in 1953 to Sarasota.
A classically trained violinist, Rohr played the viola in the Sarasota West Coast Symphony, founded the Sarasota boys and girls choirs, led an all-accordion band and for 48 years directed the Bee Ridge Presbyterian Church Choir and the Sarasota Choral Society, for which she still serves as director emerita.
“I’ve always felt that music was as important as math or science,” says Rohr, who during her nearly 30-year tenure as a music teacher in Sarasota County taught in every public elementary school in the district.
“Music helps everything else in the brain develop.”
Perhaps this is why her brain has stayed so sharp.
Three years ago she suggested creating “Sarasota’s Got Talent,” a performing-arts competition in the vein of her three favorite TV programs: “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The school opened up the contest to children and adults; the auditions are held at the Plymouth Harbor Auditorium. The first year, 35 performers auditioned. Last year, that number doubled.
“Working with children all of these years has kept my mother young,” McHugh says. “Teaching and being with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren has kept her in a youthful frame of mind. Although, if you ask her, she’ll say she’s old.”
The two women are sitting side-by-side in Rohr’s tiny wood-paneled office at JRA. Even though she retired from teaching in 1982, Rohr still gives piano lessons and keeps an office at the school.
Her desk is cluttered with photographs, stacks of sheet music, an assortment of awards and a glass jar of jellybeans. Among the framed accolades is a plaque from the city of Sarasota proclaiming Nov. 28, 2004, “Dr. Julia W. Rohr Day.”
“When she complains about being old, I tell her most women her age are in nursing homes,” McHugh says. “And here she is driving, shopping and working.”
McHugh emphasizes the word “working,” to which Rohr rolls her eyes and shrugs.
As much as she’s scaled back her involvement with other organizations, Rohr continues to throw her weight around at JRA.
“The teachers here have learned that when she says, ‘Jump,’ they ask, ‘How high?’” McHugh jokes. “When she needs a new cane bedazzled, the art teacher bedazzles it.”
Rohr chuckles quietly to herself. Some schools have a mascot. The Julie Rohr Academy has a matriarch –– and she rules with a sparkly cane.
“All the children call me ‘Dr. Rohr,’” Rohr says, referencing her 1991 honorary doctor of liberal arts degree from her alma mater, Shenandoah University. “I always get a charge out of that.”
IF YOU AUDITION
Auditions for “Sarasota’s Got Talent” will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Plymouth Harbor Auditorium, 700 John Ringling Blvd. The entry fee is $25 per person or $50 per group. Performance categories include 12 and under, teen (ages 13 to 17), adult (ages 18 and up) and group. The final competition will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, at Elevation Academy, 582 McIntosh Road. For more information, call 371-4979.
VIDEO: Julia Rohr shows off her piano-playin' chops.
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