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Wheeling Hall of Fame Inductees, Astor Lee and John Joseph Owens Honored for Contributions to Music and Fine Arts

(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a six-part series profiling the Wheeling Hall of Fame’s 2019 inductees.)

WHEELING — A barrier-breaking musician and a respected portrait artist, both known internationally, have been selected for the Wheeling Hall of Fame.

Everett Astor Lee, who is 102 and now resides in Sweden, and the late John Joseph “J.J.” Owens are being inducted in the Music and Fine Arts category.

They and 10 other honorees are to be recognized during a banquet at 6 p.m. June 7 at WesBanco Arena. The last day to buy tickets for the Hall of Fame dinner is May 31.

Members of the hall’s board said, “In 1953, Lee became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the South when asked to conduct the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky. Two years later, he conducted at the New York City Opera Company and is believed to be the first African American to conduct a major opera in the United States.”

Born in Wheeling on Aug. 31, 1916, Lee showed an early aptitude for playing violin and took lessons from Walter Rogers of South York Street. Lee continued to study violin after his family moved to Cleveland in 1927.

After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Lee enlisted in the military.

He was sent to Tuskegee to train as a pilot, but an injury ended his military career.

He was living in Cleveland when legendary Broadway producer Billy Rose asked him to join his orchestra for a production of “Carmen Jones” in New York. In 1943, Lee, the concertmaster, conducted a performance when the conductor was snowed in.

In 1944, Lee worked with Leonard Bernstein on an engagement of “On the Town,” closing out the show as its conductor. He continued working with Bernstein and studied at Juilliard School of Music and at Tanglewood. He played first violin for the New York Symphony under Bernstein.

At a time when opportunities for black conductors were limited, Lee formed the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society in 1947. He and his first wife, voice coach Sylvia Olden, received Fulbright scholarships and left the United States in 1952, studying music in Rome for a year.

Moving to Germany in 1956, Lee became conductor of the Munchener Opernbuhne, a traveling opera company. In 1962, he was appointed conductor of Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden and held that position for 13 years. Lee also conducted the Symphony of the New World in New York, the Bogota Philharmonic in Colombia and Opera North in Philadelphia.

Lee served as guest conductor for many symphony orchestras in the United States and in other countries. Throughout his career, Lee conducted more than 1,000 orchestral, choral and operatic works. For his final appearance, he conducted the Louisville Orchestra in 2005.

Meanwhile, Hall of Fame officials said, “Owens brought fame to the city of Wheeling by painting portraits of many influential leaders, both nationally and abroad.”

A collection of his paintings is housed at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling.

Owens was born in Wheeling in 1887 and died of appendicitis at age 44. He graduated from Cathedral High School, now known as Central Catholic High School, and completed a four-year course in painting and drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Later, he was staff artist for the Wheeling Register newspaper and opened an artist’s studio in his hometown.

At the outbreak of World War I, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the medical corps as a surgical illustrator. After the Armistice, he remained in Paris for six months to study at the Academie de la Grande Chaumier under renowned artists and sculptors.

After Owens returned from Europe, he opened a professional studio in the Hawley Building, now known as the Mull Center. In 1926, he went back to Europe for more study and accepted many art commissions in Spain, Italy and France, earning an international reputation.

Upon his return to Wheeling, Owens held art exhibitions at his studio and taught art. He founded the Art Club of Wheeling in 1928 and served as its treasurer. He taught and worked with Oglebay, specifically with the Art Colonies for Young People.

Owens was well known for his paintings of presidents of the former Fort Henry Club in Wheeling. He also painted landscapes and portraits of other Wheeling residents.

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