BY B.G. GREGG
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It was the mid-1980s, and John E. Pepper, already a high-ranking Procter & Gamble executive, was attending education seminars around the nation and hearing echoes of the same theme: America's future was shaky.
Not if I can help it, he decided.
He gathered together other Cincinnati citizens and founded the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, an agency that would go on to provide mentors, college information and scholarships to thousands of Cincinnati young people over the next decade.
"This was John's vision; this was John's dream," said Sister Jean Patrice Harrington, the first leader of the organization. The youth collaborative is now a model for other mentoring programs around the country, and it alone ensures that Mr. Pepper's legacy as P&G's leader will reach far beyond stock prices and innovative fat substitutes.
But it is far from the only community project Mr. Pepper involved himself in to help Cincinnati's youth, and he is as much revered for his willingness to help young people as he is for his business acumen.
"I have never met a person who believes in the goodness of other people like he does," Sister Harrington said. "When I started working with him, someone told me that John Pepper has one big fault: He thinks everyone is as good as he is and as well-meaning."
Mr. Pepper not only started the youth collaborative, he mentored young people. His wife, Francie, kept the organization's books for five years. He lobbied others at P&G, and those he met outside the company during his many business encounters, to volunteer. "My favorite description of John is the ultimate Boy Scout," said John Williams, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. "How many CEOs of Fortune 100 companies take on the additional responsibility of serving as a mentor to inner-city school children? It is unheard of."
Young people and education have always been the center of Mr. Pepper's volunteer work. Earlier this year, he received a Governor's Award for serving as co-chair of the Governor's Education Management Council and helping Ohio's schools. "Every Ohioan owes you a debt of gratitude for your willingness to exemplify enlightened corporate leadership," Gov. George Voinovich said.
That leadership extended to helping Cincinnati's United Way & Community Chest. He has volunteered for the organization for more than 30 years, and he guided the 1994 campaign that raised a record $44 million, despite two previous years of setbacks linked to a 1992 scandal at United Way of America.
"We needed to get out of the tailspin, and he was there for us," said Dick Aft, director of the local United Way. "He kept saying, "What is the right thing to do?' He never looked for the easy way or quick answers.
"We have a lot of volunteers who lead with their heads, who are very thoughtful, and a lot who lead with their hearts. John was one who had the rare combination."
Mr. Aft said Mr. Pepper did more than raise money. He and his wife personally paid the salaries of several Xavier University students who interned for United Way agencies, and he often visited the agencies himself, talking with those receiving help.
Mrs. Pepper said listening is one of her husband's best qualities. "He really cares about people -- all people," she said. "When you talk to him, you can tell he cares. He listens like nobody else listens."
In 1996, Mr. Pepper helped convene the National Education Summit in Palisades, N.Y., to talk about how businesses could help public education, and later that year, he spoke at the American Federation of Teachers annual conference in Cincinnati. In 1995, Procter & Gamble received the 1995 Distinguished Company of the Year award from the National Alliance of Business, a non-profit organization that promotes education.
He may be slowly reducing his business activities, but he and Mrs. Pepper said the volunteer activities will continue. That's good news for those who have benefited from his hard work and late nights.
"As long as he's got breath in his body, as long as his heart's beating, he'll be a factor," said Arthur Hull, Cincinnati Public Schools board president.
John Bryant, current director of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, said he could not think of the organization without Mr. Pepper's guidance.
"To measure his impact -- it boggles my mind," he said. "Literally, we would not have this without him."
He added that Mr. Pepper will always be able to rally financial support and volunteers for needy agencies, even after he gives up the title of P&G chairman and CEO.
"Everyone knows he is a man of tremendous integrity and respect and because of that, he will always be a person of tremendous influence."