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In 1927 Chicago native, 21 year old Grace Tolf, made two commitments that changed her life and set the course of the lives of her son and grandchildren. That year she married Stanley F. Pepper and together they started Pepper Construction.
The young couple couldn’t have chosen a worse time to begin a business. Not only was America heading into a deep depression, their home city had become the gathering spot for some of the era’s most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone.
The Peppers ignored all of that.
Because they did, the matriarch of one of Chicago’s leading construction firms witnessed their once fledgling endeavor evolve from a toolbox and kitchen-table operation into a billion dollar family business. Today there are Pepper subsidiaries in Indiana, Texas, and Ohio. In addition to their headquarters in downtown Chicago, there are two other Illinois locations- in Barrington and Tinley Park.
Grace Tolf Pepper Garrett died on Thursday, November 3, 2011, after a period of ill health at her home in Inverness. She was 105.
She was born on September 4, 1906 in Chicago and was one of seven children of Swedish immigrants. Her father was Axel Frederick Tolf from Stockholm and her mother, Lottie Frysten Tolf, was from Uppsala. The Tolfs’ sixth child, Grace, became the first member of their family to earn a high school diploma. It was awarded at Lake View High School where Grace became adept in commercial courses. Prior to her marriage, she used her skills working as a stenographer for the bond house, Halsey, Stuart and Company and for Roger Brothers Seed Company.
Thus, when Stanley Pepper, high school dropout, decided to start a business his bride was a natural partner. He was a skilled carpenter with a persuasive personality enabling him to easily land small building projects while Grace Pepper’s book-keeping skills and her frugal nature made her well suited to handle Pepper’s money matters. There were no bank loans to negotiate. Their mantra was “do quality work and always pay cash.”
The small kitchen in their Irving Park apartment doubled as Pepper’s office. By 1930 they were parents of two small children, Carol and Richard. Business wise, the new decade offered an exciting challenge: the company was recruited by Marshall Field’s to deal with the move of Field’s wholesale operation to the new Merchandise Mart on the banks of the Chicago River. This opened a big door. Pepper’s work ethic was tested, word spread, and new customers signed on. Marshall Fields, which is now Macy’s, remains a customer today.
Not long after Richard’s birth and the company’s coup with Merchandise Mart, Grace Pepper relinquished her book-keeping duties. A small office for the business was opened on Lawrence Avenue and about that same time, the Peppers moved their young family into a large three-bedroom apartment on North Kildare Avenue. Stanley Pepper felt that with two small children to care for his wife had enough to do.
Business boomed; however, on September 8, 1957 after 30 years of operating his growing firm Stanley Pepper died. The Peppers’ son, Richard, stepped into his father’s place, a position Richard held for years. Today the company is managed by the third generation - the founders’ grandchildren.
Grace Tolf Pepper Garrett led an active life. In her younger days, she played golf at both Inverness and Barrington Hills Country Clubs. She was an avid reader and she enjoyed playing Bridge. She was also active at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church where she served on the Altar Guild.
In 1967, Grace was remarried to Inverness attorney, William Garrett. He died in the early 1980s. Grace Garrett was also predeceased by her daughter and son-in-law Carol and Leonard Golan.
She is survived by her son and his wife, Richard and Roxy Pepper of Barrington; as well as 10 grandchildren, 23 great grandchildren, and four great great grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Tuesday, November 8, at 10 a.m. at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 342 E. Wood Street in Palatine.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, 342 E. Wood Street, Palatine, IL 60067.
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