Thirty years ago, on May 15, 1985, hundreds gathered in Ruby Diamond Auditorium at Florida State University for the dedication of the Mildred and Claude Pepper Library and to watch Representative Claude Pepper receive one of his highest honors from FSU. During his career, Claude Pepper forged connections with several Florida colleges and universities. However it was a personal connection to Florida State College for Women (FSCW), and later FSU, which led him to entrust the papers and artifacts from his years of public service to the university. In recognition of his work and long relationship with the school, Florida State President Bernard Sliger conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on Claude Pepper at the ceremony.
Claude and his wife, Mildred, were a regular presence on the Florida State campus although he had never been in the classroom as a student. Over the decades, they frequently visited the university and attended sporting events and homecomings. Mildred Pepper endowed a scholarship for students in the fashion school. Claude Pepper spoke on campus many times – including giving a commencement address in 1977.
Claude Pepper received the Gold Key in 1938 when he spoke at the FSCW and was later made an honorary alumnus of Florida State University. His 84th birthday party was a gala fundraiser emceed by Bob Hope that raised funds for the creation of the Mildred and Claude Pepper Eminent Scholars Chair of Social Gerontology as part of the Pepper’s legacy at Florida State.
Claude Pepper became connected to Florida State University through his time in Tallahassee and relationship with Mildred, a former student of Florida State College for Women. In the months before her death, Mildred Pepper returned to FSU with Claude to determine the location for the Pepper Library and museum. They decided on Dodd Hall- it had been the library Mildred had studied in as an undergraduate.
In his remarks upon receiving his honorary degree, Pepper acknowledged the credit owed to Mildred as his “absent partner.” He believed Florida State University was a fitting place for his papers and museum because her spirit and memories would always be part of the campus. The permanent home for his work would be a monument to all that he and Mildred had achieved together.
Florida State University President Bernard Sliger invited preeminent politicians to speak about Claude Pepper’s accomplishments before awarding the honorary doctorate. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, Florida Governor Bob Graham, and Representative Don Fuqua were invited not just because of the seats they held, but because they were friends and close allies to Claude. Governor Graham spoke for the people of Florida about Pepper’s decades of work both for the state and representing Floridians’ interests on the national stage. Fuqua, the representative for Florida’s 2nd district including Tallahassee, welcomed and introduced the members of Congress that had flown down from the Capitol D.C. for the celebration of Claude Pepper.
Tip O’Neill spoke, at the invitation of President Sliger, about Pepper’s tenacious work on behalf of all Americans to protect policies including the New Deal, civil rights, Social Security, and Medicare. They had worked closely on an agenda since O’Neill’s selection as Speak of the House in 1977. In that time, the Speaker had placed Pepper on the bipartisan commission on Social Security and gave him the chairmanship of the powerful House Rules Committee.
Correspondence and other documents from Claude and Mildred Pepper’s work with Florida State University as well as videos of the ceremony can be found in the Claude Pepper Papers held at the Pepper Library. For more than two hundred additional images from the Pepper’s visits to FSU and the dedication of the Pepper Library, please visit the Florida State University Digital Library.