A friendship started in 1964 when two young soldiers in Officer Candidate School met. At 21, Sgt. Pete Pepper had been in the Army a year longer than 19-year-old Sgt. Frank Sheahan. Today, Sheahan says he would not have made it through the 26-week intensive training that led to the him – and the 128 other men who completed the training out of 250 who began it – to becoming second lieutenants without Pepper.
“In 1964, Pete and I were assigned or volunteered to go to Officers training school in Fort Benning, Ga.,” Sheahan said, adding that they went from enlisted status to second lieutenants. “I didn’t know squat. I remember Pete helping me … it gave me enough guidance and it gave me enough motivation to get through that course. It wasn’t easy.”
“The bonds you form are very intense,” Pepper added. “The thing about OCS is you have to help each other. You have to have someone who has your back.”
Sheahan said he thinks that the training is designed to break the soldiers down, because the soldiers come out as officers and will be leading soldiers, whose lives depend on their decisions and how they hold up to pressure. And with the conflict in Vietnam building, they needed to be able to lead the soldiers in war – though Pepper and Sheahan didn’t know it at the time.
After Pepper and Sheahan completed their training, which they both completed, they went their separate ways. Both serving in the Vietnam War, but in different units, their paths not crossing again for nearly five decades.
That friendship was rekindled this past summer when Sheahan was at the American Legion for an installation dinner. He overheard one guest say that she had been playing tennis with Pete Pepper. His ears perked up at the sound of Pepper’s name.
He went home from the American Legion dinner, Googled “Pete Pepper” and found that Pepper did indeed live in San Luis Obispo. With the address in hand, Sheahan drove out to the house, which is on the outskirts of the city. When he knocked on a door, a man that Sheahan said was one of his clients, told him that Pepper had sold him the home a couple of years ago. Sheahan told him how he knew Pepper and Sheahan left with Pepper’s new address, which is only three blocks from where he has had his insurance business for the last 32 years.
When Sheahan went to Pepper’s home, he found that Pepper was out of the country, but he told the story to Pepper’s stepson and left his business card.
“[His stepson] said, ‘That’s not him, I don’t remember that,” Sheahan said.
When Pepper returned from his trip, he found Sheahan’s card and said he remembered him. He then called Sheahan and asked if he could come over and he walked the three blocks to Sheahan’s to restart their friendship from 49 years earlier.
Living only three blocks away, Pepper said that he and his wife, Patty, often walked right down Sheahan’s block to get downtown, but he never noticed or connected Sheahan’s Insurance to the soldier he once knew.
Not only had they missed each other on Chorro in front of Sheahan’s office, but they also attend the same church –Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa– and have for years. That church, the pair noted, has more than 2,200 families as members and there are seven mass services each weekend, so it would be easy to miss someone you are not looking for. Pepper started attending that church after he met his wife a couple of years ago through eHarmony. Sheahan, on the other hand, has been a life-long catholic and had attended service at the mission for several decades.
“I’m sure there were many Sundays that we attended mass together and walked by each other,” Sheahan said, adding that it was the name “Pete Pepper” that piqued his memory. “It is interesting to think 128 people left Fort Benning, Ga., … that name ‘Pete Pepper’ was imbedded in my mind.”
Sheahan is originally from New Jersey, but after he got out of the service, he moved to SLO in 1973 when he was recruited by an insurance firm to do employee benefits. He left that firm in 1980 to form his own business. He has worked on the block his business is located on for 40 years.
Pepper is originally from California, having lived in both Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara before joining the Army. He went on to have a career as a broadcast journalist in radio and television in Hawaii and California. He moved to SLO in 2005 because he was looking for a place to retire and his brother lived here. While he is retired, he was the writer/producer/director for the documentary “Killing Memories” and has been working on other documentaries. “Killing Memories” is about Vietnam War veterans returning to Vietnam and reconciling what took place decades earlier.
In SLO, Pepper is a volunteer for Veterans Helping Veterans, which is a treatment court for veterans who had service-related problems that are linked to criminal behaviors. He also volunteers with Restorative Partners with his wife. Pepper and Sheahan also volunteer at their church.
“I am more involved in the church,” Sheahan said. “The church is a big part of my life.”
Over the past 40 years, Sheahan has been actively involved in the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, the Mustang Boosters, Boy Scouts, Cancer Society, Heart Association, YMCA, Achievement House, Woods Humane Society, Kiwanis De Tolosa and helped start Crimestoppers in 1981. He was also named Citizen of the Year by the SLO Chamber in 1990.
“It’s a small world,” Sheahan said. “All those years and I can honestly say if it wasn’t for Pete’s help and guidance, I wouldn’t have graduated.”
This story was originally published in Journal Plus in November 2013.