Three entities at FSU owe their origin to Senator Claude Pepper, our nation’s leading advocate for older Americans – the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, the Claude Pepper Center, and the Claude Pepper Foundation. We recently hosted an event – “A Celebration of Claude Pepper’s Legacy” – featuring Senator Bob Graham as keynote speaker. Also a former Florida governor, Senator Graham worked closely with Senator Pepper, with whom he shared an interest in aging policies that would better older adults’ lives. The event, held on October 12, 2017, commemorated the 40th anniversary of two events in Senator Pepper’s contribution to older Americans’ lives and FSU’s role in furthering his legacy.
In 1977, Claude Pepper – a U.S. Representative from Florida with more than 30 years of experience in state and national politics – became chair of the newly-created House Select Committee on Aging. It proved to be a springboard that vaulted Senator Pepper into his role as the nation’s leading advocate for older Americans. From that beginning, for the next 12 years in the House of Representatives, he staunchly defended the two social programs so essential to older Americans, then and now – Medicare and Social Security. He fought to strengthen Medicare by expanding its coverage of home healthcare. As for Social Security, when it was being reformed in the 1980s he sought, and achieved, a compromise that minimized the trimming of benefits.
But Senator Pepper’s efforts to improve older adults’ lives were more expansive than even these significant contributions would suggest. He sponsored legislation that made mandatory retirement virtually illegal. He ensured that the Older Americans Act expanded services allowing older adults to remain in their communities. He established Alzheimer’s Research and Care Centers across the nation. He led an investigation of health care scams targeting older adults. He supported legislation making public transportation accessible to disabled persons. And this is only a partial list of his accomplishments.
Claude Pepper was the most effective advocate for older Americans that our nation has ever seen. He not only created social programs. He drew our nation’s awareness to the moral imperative of collectively addressing the needs of its oldest members.
Meanwhile, farther south – in Tallahassee, Florida – Professor William Bell, in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University, received federal funding to establish a Multidisciplinary Center on Gerontology. He started the Center in the Bellamy Building within the College of Social Sciences. In the 1980s, the Center, under the leadership of Dean Marie Cowart, took the first steps of what would become a longstanding relationship with the Claude Pepper Foundation. Senator Pepper gifted his papers, correspondence, and memorabilia to Florida State University and worked to establish three Pepper entities that now share the Pepper building and work to further his legacy.
Our work today strives to carry forward Pepper’s legacy of improving the lives of older Americans. The Institute conducts research on aging issues with implications for public policy – including economic and health disparities in later life, the manifestations and consequences of ageism, the features of our social and physical environments shaping well-being in later life, and the early life experiences that influence our later years. The Institute also supports the work of the Safe Mobility for Life Coalition to improve the aging population’s transportation options, and it supports the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at FSU, which offers dozens of classes each year to its nearly twelve hundred members. The Claude Pepper Center focuses its efforts on informing policy makers and the public about research on critical challenges confronting older Americans, especially long-term care and income security. The Pepper Foundation supports these and other Claude Pepper-inspired initiatives.
In the years since Senator Pepper’s momentous achievements and the establishment of the Institute, the Center, and the Foundation, the need for research and advocacy has only increased. We believe in our mission, and we are proud – and honored – to work towards Senator Pepper’s vision for the nation’s older adults: that they be secure, free from want, and vital and respected citizens.
Anne Barrett is the Director of the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy and a Professor of Sociology.