When Margaret Fishler Fleet graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy of Music in Fernandina Beach, FL many years ago, her beloved piano teacher, Sister Nola, gave Margaret the nun’s only worldly possession, a lace handkerchief as a present. So profound was Margaret’s love of music that she made sure each of her four daughters and her granddaughters carried the handkerchief during their own weddings. A week before she died, she mustered the energy to perform a final piano recital for her family.
She was born June 28, 1919, in Fernandina Beach to Clara and Morris Fishler, immigrants from Romania. Fernandina Beach was a small town of about 3,000 people, including a handful of Jewish families, located in the northeast corner of Florida. Her father came there to take over a store. He soon got into the shrimp business, an unusual occupation for an observant Jew, while his wife ran the store. The family used to joke that they made money because Clara, who kept a kosher home (difficult to do in this small town), wouldn't let anyone eat the shrimp.
Margaret received an undergraduate degree in social work from Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University) at the age of 19. Too young to work as a social worker, she taught school in Yulee, FL, a small town near Jacksonville (which happened to have been founded by David Levy Yulee, a Sephardi who was the first Jew elected to the U.S. Senate).
In 1940, she married Joel Fleet, a young doctor she had known since she was 15. The young couple moved to New Orleans, where her husband practiced at Charity Hospital, and then settled in Jacksonville where Joel Fleet practiced pediatrics. She worked in her husband’s office periodically and also as a teacher from time to time, but her main involvement was extensive community work and raising five children.
Playing the piano was not the only way Margaret expressed her passion for music. She also sang in synagogue choirs at the Jacksonville Jewish Center and at Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, where she moved in 1998 to be closer to her children and grandchildren.
Margaret and Joel Fleet were dedicated and enthusiastic supporters of cultural activities throughout their life. They were a constant presence at every art opening, musical event, or theatrical production possible in Jacksonville. Margaret served as president of the Friends of the Fine Arts at Jacksonville University, the Friday Musicale, the Delius Association of Florida, the Duval County Medical Society Auxiliary, and the North Florida chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. In 1991, Jacksonville University dedicated a Fine Arts Day in Margaret Fleet s honor.
Sister Nola and piano were important in her life, but her Jewish identity and heritage were even more so. She was involved in many Jewish causes and organizations and was a proud supporter of Israel, especially in her life-long devotion to Hadassah.
When not engaged with her volunteer work and musical endeavors, Margaret enjoyed visiting art galleries, going to the opera, traveling extensively with her husband, and spending time with her family and friends. When Margaret moved to Massachusetts, she immediately became an active member of the community. She regularly took courses at the Lasell Village retirement community in which she lived, sang with the choir, and participated in cultural activities. Margaret was also an active participant in events at Tufts University during the decade her son-in-law was president there.
Adapted from obituary in the Florida Times Union, February 10, 2013.