By Fran Hathaway, Special to The Palm Beach Post
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
Pat Pepper seemed to have it all. Blond and beautiful, intelligent and strong-minded, she appeared indomitable. So when friends learned that she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- they agreed that if anyone could defeat a fatal illness, it was Pat.
She couldn't. Ms. Pepper died Saturday, but not without a fight. Time after time, doctors told her she would die in two to five years. Time after time, she rejected the edict. Call it denial or call it courage, her refusal to accept a death sentence was typical of the resolve with which she faced many challenges.
As mayor of West Palm Beach in 1988 and 1989, Ms. Pepper determined to rouse the city from its long sleep by proposing a strong-mayor form of government. When fellow commissioners didn't agree, she initiated a petition drive, and in 1991 voters agreed with her.
As mayor, she persuaded officials to move the planned Kravis Center for the Performing Arts from the Palm Beach Community College campus in Lake Worth to a site on the then-Downtown/Uptown property, making the Kravis a catalyst for development.
A few years later, while working in Miami, Ms. Pepper knew that West Palm Beach was going to issue a request for proposals to develop the Downtown/Uptown land and encouraged developer Steve Ross, who had become "the love of my life," to consider it. The result was CityPlace, and few people knew how central her role was.
In 1982, she and a handful of like-minded women founded Executive Women of the Palm Beaches to fulfill that purpose. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck, Pat was director of community development for the Florida Department of Community Affairs. She offered to help with recovery efforts and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her state liaison to the federal government as well as city and county governments. Within hours, she was surveying the devastation from an army helicopter.
Pat experienced the first hint of illness one morning in 1993, when she got in her car and couldn't turn the key in the ignition. She had been suffering from fatigue but blamed it on 60- to 70-hour workweeks during the recovery effort.
Initially, doctors could find no specific cause. Eventually, they diagnosed ALS. In later years, Ms. Pepper came to believe that while working amid the toxins released by the hurricane she had contracted Lyme disease, and that it could cause muscle-wasting similar to ALS. Despite steadily diminishing strength, a year-long course of intravenous antibiotics and quadriplegia, she never gave up her search for a cure.
In 2001, Pat moved to Sedona, Ariz., to be near her daughter, Jennifer, who was at her side throughout the long struggle. In 2002 and the early part of this year, she followed a daily regimen intended to awaken hundreds of muscles and thought she was making progress. When others helped her to a standing position, she
We scheduled a telephone interview for July 3, Pat's 58th birthday, and talked for two hours. Jennifer served as intermediary, since her mother could not speak clearly. Two weeks later, Pat lost the ability to speak altogether. Last Saturday, she slipped away peacefully.
Pat fought her illness with determination and dignity, rarely revealing her pain and anger. In a 1998 interview published in Good Housekeeping magazine, however, she told Donna Hanover that she had gone through "a time of being very angry with God" as her dreams for the future were shattered. "Do I cry?" she said. "Yes. But I've always been on the playing field of life, not on the sidelines. I've learned that the field is never level, never fair, but you get out there and play anyway."
Established in 1997, the Pat Pepper Scholarship is awarded annually to a young woman in Palm Beach County who has demonstrated academic achievement, community leadership and an interest in pursuing a career in business. This scholarship is traditionally awarded to a high school senior through the Pathfinders Program.
The scholarship is awarded in honor of Pat Pepper, a past president of Executive Women of the Palm Beaches.
|Pat Pepper Memorial Scholarship Recipients:|
Shannon K. Mead