Ernest Bruce Pepper, Jr.—known to his family as “Pepper” and to his friends as “Bruce”—died peacefully on August 17, 2020.
Bruce was surrounded by the mountains he loved, by the side of the wife who was his heart. He was 87.
The mountains of Colorado were a far cry from the geography of his birthplace. Bruce was born on May 31, 1933 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, on the upper edge of the flat Mississippi Delta. Bruce was the only child of George Marshall Hawkins Pepper and Ernest Bruce Pepper, Sr. The country was coming out of the Great Depression, and Bruce’s father owned a commissary. He and his brother had $31.50 between them; they bought the commissary merchandise for $31.00. Twenty-five cents of the remaining money (along with some laying hens) went to pay the doctor who delivered Bruce, leaving the family with $0.25 and a new baby. The family butchered hogs to provide meat for the winter. Families bartered produce, meat and dairy for fabric or shoes or medicine. Celebrations included all-day singing and picnics on the grounds of the local church.
Bruce had a quick, fine mind, and despite somewhat humble beginnings, attended college at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi. He graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi with a degree in marketing and personnel management; he was a member of Rho Tau Sigma (a national honorary speech fraternity) and Pi Sigma Epsilon (a national marketing and sales fraternity). For a while, he tried his hand at sales.
Bruce met and married Beverlyn Lomax, his partner on every step of the rest of his life’s path. Bruce and Beverlyn married on August 30, 1958, beginning a remarkable journey. After a short stint living in Memphis, Tennessee, they moved to the tiny town of Leland, Mississippi, separated from the nearest towns by miles of cotton and soybean fields. Bruce tried his hand at farming for a while.
When Bruce and Beverlyn found that they could not have children, they decided to adopt. In the spring of 1964, after months of home visits and interviews and waiting for the phone to ring, they drove to New Orleans, Louisiana and adopted their daughter Pam. Bruce loved to tell the story of Pam crying all the way across the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge, and how she stopped only when Beverlyn drove and Bruce held six-week-old Pam, her gaze fixed on the sparkling diamond in his tie tack. When she was eighteen, he had that diamond made into a ring for Pam.
Four years later, Bruce and Beverlyn again made the journey to New Orleans and adopted Clifton Bruce (“Kipper” when he was small, now “Cliff”). The Pepper house in Leland became Grand Central Station—children and dogs (Penny, Willie, Sukey, Stephanie Jane), cats (Kiss-Me-Kitty) and turtles (that got stuck under the couch and died), mice. All the while, Bruce’s thirst for knowledge and desire for adventure grew.
Bruce was not born to be a salesman or a farmer. But he was born, as was Beverlyn, to be a teacher. While Beverlyn was drawn to the “little bitsies”—first graders—Bruce found his calling in working with young adults, sixteen to twenty-one, who struggled with learning disabilities and cognitive disfunction. Eventually, he would obtain a master’s degree from Delta State University in multiple fields, including special education.
Years before “mainstreaming” special education students became a common practice, Bruce insisted that his students be treated with the same respect and dignity as other students. He worked with the Mississippi Delta Mental Health organization. While working at the Weston Line School district, he developed a work study program for young men ages sixteen to twenty-one, teaching them life and vocational skills. Later, he taught at Leland High School (the school his children attended). When his special education students saw that the other kids were going to proms, Bruce refused to let them be left out. Collecting dresses and suits from Goodwill and buying cheese puffs and punch himself, Bruce rented a hall, hired a DJ and hosted a prom for his students.
Bruce’s curiosity, intelligence and adventurous spirit drew him to travel and hobbies. The family went camping in the summers and on spring breaks. They spent an entire summer in remote Canada—Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island. They saw the “Bay of Fundy on a Monday,” as Bruce loved to say. In a Coleman pop-top camper that smelled vaguely of mildew, they camped in Florida, Texas, Maine, the Appalachian Mountains; once they met an effusive fellow camper from Russia who called Bruce “Brucie!!!” It became a family nickname. Bruce and Beverlyn took the family to Europe twice, traveling to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy, accompanied by a suitcase full of granola bars, a wet rag for wiping faces and Beverlyn’s mother, Deleslyn. On the first trip, Beverlyn’s sister Fay Cook and her husband Tom lent the family a red, Volkswagon Beetle for getting around. Bruce promptly named it “Die Pfeffermühle,” German for “The Pepper Mill.”
As for hobbies, there always was something new going on in the Pepper household. Bruce was a photographer, a woodworker, a rock polisher, a wine maker (the balloon kind), a cook. He and Beverlyn built a greenhouse in the back yard and grew plants that they sold at weekend fairs around the Delta. He loved to watch football, and loved family celebrations like birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. He was a lavish host and a generous giver of gifts.
He was chief chauffeur and chaperone during Pam and Cliff’s high school years. There were many parties in the Pepper backyard, many trips to collect stranded children with flat tires or cars stuck in the mud, many late nights waiting for children to come home from dates or jobs or parties. There were more dogs—Ranger, Dr. Kool (or “Koolie”).
As their children headed off to college—Pam to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and Cliff to Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana—Beverlyn and Bruce began to vacation in the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado. Bruce fell in love with the area, particularly the mountains. He loved the Collegiate Mountain Range. When both Beverlyn and Bruce had retired from teaching, they sold the home in Leland where they’d raised their children and moved to Mesa Antero, a community between the towns of Salida and Buena Vista in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The home they eventually built was surrounded by mountains, and Bruce never tired of looking at them. Pam and Cliff both married, and Cliff’s daughters Sophie and Sasha became fixtures at the house on Deer Trail. Pam’s son Leland—named after the small town in the Delta where Beverlyn and Bruce made their home—visited, too.
Bruce never ceased to wonder at seeing the leaves change in the fall, getting into the jeep and “four-wheeling it” to Leadville or Maroon Bells. He loved his warm, generous, kind neighbors. With his unshakable Southern accent, he would insist to strangers that he was from Colorado, as if he were a native born. The boy from the flat Delta loved everything about the mountains—including the Denver Broncos. Woe betide the family member who called on Sunday during a Broncos game.
In a life of remarkable accomplishments, Bruce was most proud of his children—Pam, a judge in Milwaukee; Cliff, a consultant with KPMG; and Cliff’s wife Staci Watts Pepper, a consultant with Twilio—and his grandchildren—Sophie (who just graduated college with a degree as a veterinary technician), Sasha (who works in Denver) and Leland (who is headed to college). He would do anything for one of his children or grandchildren, and every one of them knew that. Most of all—even more than his beloved mountains—he loved his wife of sixty-two years, Beverlyn. She was his rock and his heart.
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