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Sarasota Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 3 years ago

The many faces of Lee Peterson

Wife, mother, performer, hostess, philanthropist and friend passes away at the age of 90 after a shining life, well-lived.
by: Anna Brugmann Community Editor

Last week, the light went out.

The mental health advocate and ardent supporter of the arts, Lee Peterson, 90, died on Jan. 11.

Peterson moved to Sarasota in the early 1990s with her husband, Robert Peterson. The pair became champions of mental health in Sarasota, helping create a Florida branch of the National Alliance of Research in Schizophrenia and Depression.

Later, the chapter became the nonprofit Sunshine from Darkness, associated with the International Mental Health Research Organization.

“The two of them were a team when they moved to Sarasota,” their daughter Janice Radder remembered in an interview.

"...She was this elegant, gorgeous thing. But she never made you feel less than her.”

-Janice Radder, daughter

They were different, but the same. Robert Peterson was calculated. Lee Peterson was dramatic. Both were abundantly altruistic and unwavering in their love for each other.

“They were a true love affair,” longtime friend Flori Roberts said. 

Peterson was born in Manhattan in 1926. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she came from humble beginnings.

Sarasota will remember her as a poised, attentive and gracious hostess — traits she nurtured while working in her parents’ restaurant on Second Avenue. She cooked, cleaned, tended bar and even sang.

“She and her father would sing in the kitchen and all the customers would listen,” Radder said. “They realized she had a huge talent.”

She went on to sing on Broadway, dazzling audiences with her talent and her beauty.

“Everybody said she looked like Elizabeth Taylor,” Radder said.

Peterson met her husband in 1953. They married a year later and had three children, Jeffrey, Janice and David.

She was compassionate, denying herself her musical ambitions to rear her children — a testament to her selflessness.

“She wanted to do things for people. If you went to her house, she was cooking for you. She was taking my friends shopping. She would have all the boys and all the girls sleeping all over the house,” Radder said. “My friends called her Aunt Lee, and yet she was this elegant, gorgeous thing. But she never made you feel less than her.”

She was a wife, a mother, a philanthropist, an active supporter of the arts and a trailblazer in her own right.

“She made (mental illness) fashionable, which was kind of a miracle.”

-Flori Roberts, friend

In the 1990s and early 2000s, few people were fighting to dismantle the stigma of mental illness. The subject remained taboo in proper circles, but Peterson and her husband were undaunted. She approached the challenge like she approached life — with passion.

Sunshine from Darkness hosted annual symposiums featuring celebrities like the mathematician John Forbes Nash and the columnist Art Buchwald.

“She had wonderful, elegant, gorgeous dinners and had the symposiums the next day with the best scientists they could fine,” Roberts said. “She made (mental illness) fashionable, which was kind of a miracle.”

She spent more than two decades advocating for mental illness and the arts in Sarasota and raised $5 million for the cause.

“She was interested in you. She knew you from the minute she looked at you,” Radder said. “She wanted to know all about you. She had a love of people and a love of life.”

Peterson and her husband were also dogged patrons of the arts. The Peterson Great Room in the Sarasota Opera is named for the couple. Asolo Theater Producing Artistic Director Michael Edwards said they never missed an opening night.

In many ways, she personified the best of Sarasota. She was elegant, benevolent and genuine. But for all her virtues, her indomitable passion burns brightest.

After 90 years, Peterson’s legacy is punctuated by the very thing she gave so freely.

“She was very loved right to the end,” Radder said.

She is survived by her three children, Jeffrey Peterson, Janice Radder and David Peterson, and three grandchildren.

The family held a private memorial service on Jan 15.

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