If you were out and about Ely on Thursday, April 27, you may have seen a piano making its way across Harvey Street. What’s the story on this piano you ask? It’s a significant piece of Ely’s musical heritage and continues to inspire musicians and vocalists to this day. Why is this piano important?

Where did the piano come from?

It belonged to Josephine Shepel Luthanen, an important community figure that many of you likely remember, or learned from. Jo was a musical icon in Ely and across the Iron Range. She was born on March 20, 1919 in Ely, Minnesota, the third of five children of Slovenian immigrants Frank and Mary Shepel. While Josephine always called Ely home, her musical career allowed her to travel many places. She was Concertmaster of the University of Minnesota Orchestra while earning a bachelor’s degree of music and performed with the Duluth and Minneapolis Symphonies. She became famous in Cleveland when she broke a glass with the vibrations of her voice during a live performance. 

Josephine sang her way through 15 European countries as a guest soloist with the Suomi College (Finlandia University) Choir. She taught music – as a band director in Wisconsin and as a vocal music instructor in the Ely schools. She directed both Ely’s Sweet Adelines and the Grace Lutheran Church Youth Choir while giving private piano, violin and voice lessons in her home.

From childhood and into later life, Jo performed with her sisters Mary and Frances as the Shepel Sisters in concerts, gatherings and on radio on the Iron Range. They toured Slovenia in the 1970s and performed for the prime minister of Yugoslavia, singing ethnic songs to appreciative audiences. She soloed and sang duets with her brother Frank with the Ely Slovenian Chorus in concerts and on two LP records.

Josephine passed away at the age of 95, at the Boundary Waters Care Center in Ely. Up until her death, she played the keyboard daily and identified notes by ear. Her family says that she never lost her teacher’s spirit

Teaching Ely’s Youth

Shortly after Jo passed away, her son, Doug Luthanen donated her piano to the Ely Folk School, where he taught a Music Construction class. Now, with the blessing of Doug, the Ely Folk School has gifted this piece of Ely history to the Ely Memorial High School band, under the direction of Mr. Karl Kubiak.

We are all honored to be able to return this piano to its original purpose – mentoring and teaching the next generations of Ely musicians. Touched by this story? We encourage you to catch the next Ely High School band concert! You can learn more about Slovenian tradition at the next Slovenian Walnut Potica class at the Ely Folk School, or by getting in touch with Ely’s Slovenian Union.