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Polly Pepin, wife of philanthropist Art Pepin, dies at 87

Published Aug. 23, 2012

TEMPLE TERRACE — As the wife of one of the Tampa Bay area's A-list philanthropists, Polly Pepin had to be ready at a moment's notice for anything.

Dinner party guests often were invited just a few hours earlier by her husband, beer distributor Art Pepin. She also oversaw more elaborate parties that took weeks of planning, like the time the entire Baltimore Colts football team came over for dinner.

A stream of guests from all backgrounds trekked through their home — baseball greats like Joe DiMaggio or Johnny Bench, Broadway star Rosemary Clooney and comedian Bob Hope. Mrs. Pepin entertained them with jokes and stories, stopping when she had a spare moment to sip white wine and crème de cassis.

Mrs. Pepin died Aug. 16 at home after a long illness. She was 87.

"From the minute they started doing well with the beer distributorship, they started helping in so many ways," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, a longtime family friend.

Greco turned to the Pepins in the early 1970s to entertain football team owner Carroll Rosenbloom and the Colts, who played an exhibition game as Tampa tested the water for professional football. Mrs. Pepin fed them all, and did the same for Metropolitan Life executives Greco was luring to Tampa.

"They were kind and generous to everybody. It didn't matter who you were or your station in life," Greco said.

Some occasions required a lot of planning. For others, she pulled out lasagna she had frozen for unexpected guests.

"Pep would call her and say, 'I'm bringing 20 people home for dinner,' " said Joan Card, Mrs. Pepin's sister. "She went along with it. She worked hard and did her share."

Her last name shows up in some of Tampa's most important organizations, from a restored Pepin-Rood Stadium at the University of Tampa to the Pepin Heart and Vascular Institute at University Community Hospital in Tampa.

Pepin Academies, a charter school for students with learning disabilities, has grown in enrollment over a dozen years from 32 students to more than 450.

While millions of dollars for those concerns came from her husband's Pepin Distributing Co., an Anheuser-Busch distributor since the 1960s, Mrs. Pepin kept the social machinery going.

"She was the woman in front of the man, behind the man and beside the man," said Tim Smith, 56, Mrs. Pepin's son-in-law.

Keeping up with a constant social whirl, connected with so many charities, could be exhausting. Mrs. Pepin pulled it off with a disarming smile and a humor that put others at ease.

"She wanted everything to be rosy. She never wanted anything to be 'blue gloom,' as she put it," her sister said.

Polly Pooler was born in Westport, N.Y., near Lake Champlain, the daughter of a fishing guide. The high school cheerleader graduated from Albany Business School. A chance encounter on an Albany sidewalk changed her life.

Art Pepin, a semiprofessional football player who worked multiple jobs, was running from one workplace to another.

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He knocked her flat into a snowbank, then dusted her off and apologized. Later, she and a girlfriend stopped by his bartending job on the way home from the grocery store.

"She stayed 21/2 hours," said Card, 80. "Everything she bought went bad."

Everything, that is, except a budding romance that lasted the rest of her life.

They married and raised a family. Art Pepin had Anheuser-Busch distributorships in Manchester, N.H., then Gainesville. August Busch Jr. awarded him the Tampa market in 1967. The family built a five-bedroom home along the Hillsborough River the next year, with a swimming pool shaped like a Michelob bottle. Eventually, the house became a local attraction around Christmastime, with four Christmas trees, lighted palms, reindeer and thousands of lights.

In 1986, at age 64, Art Pepin became the oldest person in the country to undergo a heart transplant. His $1 million donation three years later to University Community Hospital led to the Pepin Heart and Vascular Institute.

Theresa Piccirilli, 89, a close friend, said that of all their philanthropic endeavors, Mrs. Pepin was especially proud of their work with the heart institute.

Her husband died in 2000, around the same time Mrs. Pepin's health began to decline, family members said. Her son, Tom Pepin, has since led efforts to expand that facility. The Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute, considered one of the top heart treatment and research facilities in the Southeast, opened in 2006.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.


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