Diabetes lost one of its most powerful enemies when Bal Harbour’s Sonja Zuckerman, who raised more than $50 million to combat the disease over the past five decades, died at age 99.
Zuckerman had been in failing health since a 2016 automobile accident, family members said. She died on Friday.
Neither Zuckerman nor any of her close relatives ever had diabetes. But when a family friend was diagnosed with the disease in the 1970s, Zuckerman was horrified to see how little support was available.
“There was really nothing in Miami for diabetes,” she told the Miami Herald in an interview in 2014, when she was winning yet another of the wall full of award she received for philanthropy.
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That certainly was not true for long after Zuckerman got involved. She organized a host of fundraising events for diabetes research — most notably the Love and Hope Ball, still a popular and lucrative event for the Miami-based Diabetes Research Institute 45 years later.
“Sonja Zuckerman was one of Miami’s great ladies and we will never forget her,” said Barry Gibb, who (along with his late brothers and Bee Gees bandmates Maurice and Robin) was one of the many celebrities Zuckerman recruited to the cause. “She will live on in the cause of DRI and Love and Hope, and will be greatly missed.”
Diabetes research was just one of the charitable causes Zuckerman championed. She raised money for everything from Parkinson’s Disease to Vizcaya.
“When they declared me as an American, I figured I am now going to try and do something for America,” the Egypt-born Zuckerman said in her 2014 interview. “And I figured, I am very good as a speaker, so I’ll go into fundraising.”
Zuckerman was scarcely out of her teens but had already lived in Russia, Palestine and Egypt when she arrived in the United States on the eve of World War II. She became a U.S. citizen in 1946 and, after stays in New York, Chicago and Detroit, landed in South Florida, where she married Miami Beach restaurateur Harry Zuckerman, who died in 1983.
All that travel, her family says, gave her “world knowledge” that made her an absolute wizard when it came to dispensing personal advice.
“Her friends and family all sought her advice, because of her magnificent wisdom,” said her niece Eve Gelfand, of Durham, North Carolina.. “She was always right. Whenever her girlfriends came to her and asked for advice on their dating situations, she was always on the button about what to do.”
Gelfand literally owes her life to Zuckerman’s sage counsel. “She was my mother’s sister, and she introduced my mother to my father,” Gelfand said. “So I wouldn’t be alive without her.”
She is also survived by her daughter, Florence.
A chapel service will be held at noon Tuesday at Levitt Weinstein Blasberg Ruben Zilbert Memorial Chapel, 18840 W. Dixie Hwy. in North Miami Beach.
Miami Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this report.