FORMER W. PALM MAYOR, ALSO HELPED HOMELESS
Former city Mayor Pat Pepper, a champion of the poor who also played a pivotal role in developing the Kravis Center, has died. She was 58.
Diagnosed a decade ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - Lou Gehrig's disease - Ms. Pepper later became convinced she suffered from late-stage Lyme disease and set out to find a cure. She died Saturday in Arizona, where she and her only daughter lived.
Ms. Pepper served as West Palm Beach mayor from 1988 to 1989, after her initial election to the city commission in 1986. She was one of the first women to have a powerful political voice in the city.
Voted mayor by the rest of the commission, Ms. Pepper saw a weakness in the city's leadership. She, among others, advocated giving the mayor more power, and having the post filled by a citywide vote.
"She was there trying to push for something that she thought was right for the city at a time that the city wasn't very friendly to strong women," said Nancy Graham, who became the city's first strong mayor in 1991. "She had very strong character."
That strong character brought to downtown one of the cornerstones of its rebirth: the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. The center was planned for the Palm Beach Community College campus. When Ms. Pepper heard that relations were becoming strained between the college and arts center officials, she floated the idea of building the center at its present location on Okeechobee Boulevard.
"I could drive past that site and see it there," she said in a 1998 interview.
Will Ray, president of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, said the landmark center helped usher downtown redevelopment.
"The Kravis Center was the catalyst for CityPlace and the convention center and she extended the invitation," Ray said.
Ms. Pepper helped secure the land for the center and persuade the city to give $5 million toward the project.
"No elected officials in my time until then had shown that kind of leadership," Ray said. "She had style and she had beauty and she had charm. She had connections and she had softness all at the same time."
In 1990, she ended her local political career, losing a bitter commission race against Helen Wilkes. Ms. Pepper then became housing and community development director for the Florida Department of Community Affairs. After Hurricane Andrew, she lobbied for what she thought south Miami-Dade County needed: a five-year, $27 million rebuilding plan.
A year later, she was named director of the Community Partnership for the Homeless in Miami-Dade. In 1995, she attended the groundbreaking for what she considered a major personal triumph: a downtown Miami homeless center now recognized as a national model.
Through all this, Ms. Pepper was ailing. In 1993, she was diagnosed with ALS.
Ms. Pepper grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. At 17, she left home to attend Loretta Heights College, an all-girls school in Denver. There she was an avid skier who graduated in 1971 with a double degree in sociology and psychology.
For a while, she was a teacher. But in 1974, she divorced her first husband and moved to Florida. In 1981 she married local architect Ron Schwab; they divorced in 1989.
Pat Pepper is survived by her daughter, Jennifer Pepper of Scottsdale, Ariz.; parents Genevieve and J. Robert Kelleher of Orlando; brother Tom Kelleher of Ann Arbor, Mich.; brother Jim Kelleher of Boulder, Colo.; and sister Kay McDowell of Denver.
Arrangements are under way for a celebration in her name at the Kravis Center.
Palm Beach Post, The (FL) Date: August 18, 2003 Edition: FINAL Page: 1B Record Number: 0308180116 Copyright (c) 2003 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.