OPINION | REX NELSON: The Lee Ronnel story

In December, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra announced the largest individual gift in its 56-year history. The gift came from the estate of Lee Ronnel, who died in January 2022 at age 85. Christina Littlejohn, the orchestra's chief executive officer, put it best that day when she said: "We've had good years and bad years. And through them all, there was Lee Ronnel."

Ronnel, the founder of Little Rock's Metal Recycling Corp., was a professionally trained pianist. For more than half a century, he supported ASO. He did everything from leading conductor search committees to chairing fundraising events with his wife of 61 years, Dale Ronnel.

"Lee understood the power of music and the arts to lift people up and bring them together," Dale said.

ASO will use part of the money to create an endowment to operate the $9 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, an education and administration facility that will be built between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International campuses. The rest of the funds will be used for the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy, which will include everything from youth orchestras to string instruction. The size of the Ronnel gift wasn't announced.

Steve Ronnel, the youngest of the three Ronnel children, loves speaking about his father's life, a journey that could be made into a movie given its many twists and turns.

"I had the honor of playing principal trumpet in Jim Hatch's youth orchestra from 1983-85," Steve said. "It rehearsed in a poorly lit band room at Parkview High School. ... Music was deeply personal to my father. Music was woven into the fabric of his life story. It's a story many didn't know because he was so humble."

Lee was born June 16, 1936, in a Russian-speaking community in Shanghai. His name was Elias Itkis. He was the only child of Leo Itkis and Dora Paley Itkis Ronnel. Lee's parents were professional musicians. His father, born in 1907 in Ukraine, was a pianist who trained as a boy at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia. One of his classmates was famed 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

"At age 17, Leo was traveling as the piano accompanist with the Kiev Ballet on tour in China," Steve said. "After a performance in Harbin, China, my grandfather and the entire ballet troupe defected to escape the Bolshevik Revolution that had swept through their Ukrainian homeland. Our family is Jewish, and a large number of Jews who didn't leave Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s were rounded up and shot to death by the Nazis and their collaborators during the German invasion of the Soviet Union."

Music likely saved Leo's life because it allowed him to travel to China. Dora Paley was a Russian immigrant and professional musician who studied music at the Harbin Institute of Music. Following his marriage to Dora, Leo worked as a guest conductor of the Shanghai Orchestra. On 10 occasions from 1933-41, he was the featured piano soloist for the orchestra.

"When he wasn't performing with the symphony, my grandfather led a popular big band ensemble," Steve said. "The Leo Itkis Orchestra entertained and enriched Shanghai residents and world travelers nightly on the rooftop of the upscale Park Hotel, the tallest building in China at the time."

Japanese forces occupied Shanghai. In July 1942, Leo died following surgery at age 35. Lee was just 6. Lee's mother helped run a music store and taught piano lessons in order to keep food on the table.

"Music sustained my father during World War II," Steve said. "Fulfilling a promise made to Lee's father before his death, my grandmother continued developing Lee's natural musical talents on piano. After the war, Lee and his mother came to America."

They settled in Tuckahoe, N.Y., in April 1948 with Lee's new stepfather, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Eliot Ronnel. When Lee was 14, he and his mother became naturalized U.S. citizens.

"Lee continued refining his piano skills in New York during high school by playing piano in a dance band ensemble, winning prize money at local talent competitions and performing as soloist for the Westchester Symphony Orchestra," Steve said. "Lee had a perfect pitch."

After college and a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Lee arrived in Little Rock with Dale to begin a career in the scrap-metal business. ASO was incorporated shortly after their arrival in Arkansas.

"My father believed strongly that a vibrant symphony enriches our quality of life and enhances our economy in Arkansas," Steve said. "His decades of volunteerism was a labor of love. He loved the relationships he formed on the board. He loved the music that flowed through Robinson Auditorium. And he was just as happy diving deep into the weeds of the symphony's finances and governance as he was hosting visiting soloists."

Steve said Lee's work with ASO connected him back to his father, the concert pianist who died young. The work also allowed Lee to honor his mother, the former piano teacher and music store owner.

"For Lee Ronnel, music was a guiding light and source of stability and harmony through hardships and happy times," Steve said. "He considered it his obligation to give back generously to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. ... It's truly an honor to have my father's memory associated with music education and community engagement programs at the symphony going forward. The symphony and the arts have entered an undeniable period of renaissance and growth in Arkansas."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.