Warren Peper walked Interstate 91 along the Gulf Coast, stepping his way through the rubble: a rain-soaked shoe, a mutilated street sign, a tree ripped from earth, lying across an intersection, a child’s brown-and-white teddy bear, muddy and flattened to the street curb, a washing machine, sucked from a kitchen, lying atop fragments of what was once someone’s home, the residuum of Hurricane Katrina’s deed.
As he weaved in and out of the debris and surveyed the wreckage, memories of Hurricane Hugo came flooding back. The sights and sounds gave way to an emotional ambush.
“It was heartbreaking. They lost everything,” remembers Peper. “I still have very vivid memories of what our community went through after Hugo, and we didn’t have anything close to what these poor people went through.”
Hugo, a Category 5 hurricane, ripped through Charleston in September 1989 killing at least 70 people across the country and racking up an estimated $13.6 billion in damages. It was the most devastating hurricane ever recorded, until Andrew hit the U.S. in 1992.
Paying His Dues
Peper, a Charleston Southern alumnus, has seen a lot in his career, but nothing as devastating as this. Covering Katrina was Peper’s first assignment at WCBD (Channel 2) since returning to television, 14 months after he was dismissed by WCSC (Live 5 News) in August 2004. The veteran reporter had a renewed ambition. He left Charleston for the Gulf Coast with an adrenaline rush and returned numbed by what he saw.
“I happened upon a minister at a church that wasn’t there any more, all that was left was the cinder block steps and nothing else,” recalled Peper. “I pulled the minister aside and said, for someone who’s in the business as you are, where do you find God in all of this?
“He said, where you’re going to find God in this, is how we react after the fact, that’s how God’s going to make Himself known.”
Seeing Katrina’s crushing natural disaster on television is nothing like seeing the hurricane’s demolition first hand. The images are branded in Peper’s memory. When prompted, Peper, dressed in a jet black suit, centers his pink and cream stripped silk tie over his crisp, starched white shirt, takes a deep breath and begins sharing the experience, in a seemingly cathartic way.
“I ran into a Catholic priest and asked him the same question later that day,” Peper said. “He told me a story about a small fishing village where a minister had gotten in front of the congregation to talk about a small town where every single child had lost every pair of shoes they had.
“At the end of the service, every teen and every child in that church walked forward and left their shoes at the alter and walked back to their seats. He said, if you can’t find God presence and His hand in that, then you’ll never be able to see it.”
Katrina is fresh in Peper’s memory, but it scarcely scratches the surface of a 33-year body of work as a journalist, an evolution that took formation on street corners in rural Tennessee and Georgia.
Sharing the Gospel
Shortly after Billy Graham took the national stage, kicking off a 16-week nightly mission at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1957, John Peper, a Baptist minister, with three sons (Warren, Bob and Steve Peper) in tow, began sharing God’s word on a grass roots level, crusading on street corners across the south.
“He’d roll in with a trailer on the back of his car, had amplification to it, it was kind of a rolling pulpit and the Peper boys would fan out and start handing out tracks, letting people know that there would be a service down at the corner,” Peper said. “He’d crank up his accordion (laughing) … this was a very weird set of circumstances, but my dad felt very lead to do that.”
Today, Peper views the experience as the foundation for what he would do later in life. “It gave me experience of speaking in front of people,” he said. “I learned at a very early age not to be too afraid to stand up in front of people and speak. That, in a very weird and roundabout way, led to my abilities as a communicator. That was a real part of an important developmental period of my life.
“[It] shaped me. Whether I’m in a church setting or in front of thousands of people at a stadium, I’ve never had any qualms with standing up in front of people and talking. If I’ve been given nothing else, it’s the ability to communicate on certain levels.”
Peper’s formal training for a career in television news began when the North Charleston high school graduate accepted a basketball scholarship at the Baptist College (now Charleston Southern University). With the university in its infancy, growing pains became the norm and turnover was constant. Peper had three different basketball coaches in four years.
“What it forced me to do was, realize I was there for more than just to play basketball,” Peper recalls. “When things began to get rocky athletically, I began to get more involved … I became a far more well-rounded student.”
Peper served in student government, participated in the theatre and later was elected junior and senior class president. His world began to open up and soon basketball took a back seat. “I realized this athletic scholarship was more of a means to an end,” he said. “I realized much later that this experience was a very valuable teaching tool to me, it was shaping me for what I was to become. It taught me to adjust.”
In an ironic twist, during his senior year of college, Peper served as a staff intern at Channel 2, his current home. Call it right place, right time, fate, whatever, but the internship paid immediate dividends.
In May 1974, in less than one 24-hour period, Peper accepted his diploma (a BA in speech and drama degree with a minor in English) in a ceremony at the Gilliard Auditorium, celebrated, went to bed, woke up the following morning and clocked in at WCSC as a full-time reporter, where he would spend the next 30 years.
In the media industry it is called “paying your dues.” Everyone does it – everyone. Bob Woodward’s first assignments at the Washington Post were writing restaurant reviews. Walter Cronkite started his career as a wire service copywriter. For Peper it translated into reporting on small town odds and ends, even if the subject you’re interviewing is a horse. Yes, a horse.
“The story that I got the most recognition for early on was a feature I did on horse diapers,” recounts Peper with a sheepish grin. “The carriage horses in downtown Charleston were mandated to wear some type of covering because some were getting upset about the droppings on the street. So, I went down on The Battery and effectively talked to a couple of the different horses about how they felt about this decision.”
But his days of interviewing horses were short-lived. Peper, an athlete at heart, gravitated toward the sports department, where he eventually landed the sports director position in 1977, a title he held for the next 27 years, covering the World Series, The Masters and just about every major sporting event in between.
In his formative years, the Peper family moved – a lot. From California to Tennessee to Maryland and South Carolina, they were constantly on the move. In college, Peper experienced similar upheaval, playing through athletic change. Peper always seemed to embrace and exploit each challenge to his advantage. Now, after 30 years in front of the camera at one station, the television veteran faced his greatest personal and professional challenge yet: being let go.
On a summer day in August 2004, he arrived at the station only to learn his fate. A corporate representative from Jefferson Pilot, the parent company of WCSC, greeted Peper, informing him his contract was not going to be renewed. “I was just told … I could come back at a later date to pick up my stuff,” remembers Peper. “It was just done surgically and I was escorted to the parking lot.”
Just like that, Peper was gone.
“It was very tough personally,” Peper said, looking back on the situation. “It was also very tough because it was so public. It happened in a town, where it’s the only place you’d ever worked … and you’re on television. So, you’re on TV, now everyone knows you’re not on TV and you don’t really know why.”
Peper was gone, but not forgotten. As the news broke, the public responded in overwhelming fashion. The Post and Courier received the first editorial in the days after Peper’s release. Then, a couple more letters, then more and more. Before long, the editorial page of the daily Post and Courier morphed into a Warren Peper support group.
“What I got out of that was a very real understanding of how people felt about me,” he said. “And I didn’t even know that – or appreciate it. It was terribly humbling.”
In the Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren wrote, the situations that will stretch your faith the most will be those times when life falls apart and God is nowhere to be found.
Peper struggled to find clarity – and his faith was clearly being tested – in the months following his dismissal. “I will admit to this, when I went through this situation, losing my job in a very public way, not knowing it was coming, it took me a little while to understand that I needed to get out of the way in order to let things happen,” recalls Peper. “I was trying to fix it myself, I was trying to figure out how to make ends meet with mortgages and kids in college and all the normal stuff you deal with and it wasn’t until I just got out of the way and let Him take charge. He helped me a lot of years before that, but then when things went South, I tried to fix it. We all think we’re capable, we don’t need anybody else.”
It was in his free time, that Peper had a flashback, his mother Audrey’s favorite Scripture washed over him. “I had a Scripture verse from Proverbs 3:5-6 that my mother used to quote as her favorite,” he said. “It just washed over me one day during that period and I thought, ‘Good gosh, just get out of the way bud. This thing will take care of itself.’ Doggone it, the moment I step out of the way, things start coming in and I end up on my feet.”
Back On the Air
Even after returning in the Fall of 2005 with WCBD, Peper still struggled to grasp the public’s reaction. He wasn’t quite sure why people reacted so positively about him.
For years, he unknowingly was building a relationship with the audience; he reported, the audience listened. But Peper never saw an audience, he never heard an audience, he just looked at the camera and delivered the news. It became a one-way street, no interaction. This existence left Peper indifferent about the impact he had on the community. Then, during a happenstance meeting, Peper had an awakening.
In December 2005, Peper, his wife Judy and their three children took a family vacation to New York. Peper took his seat next to Pastor Thomas Riley of World Overcomers Ministries in North Charleston.
Not long after the wheels were up, Peper and Riley began to talk. “My wife is sitting across the aisle and she can’t hear a lot of the conversation, but she notices it’s just non-stop,” Peper said. “Ordinarily on a plane, I like to sit back and sleep.”
Riley shared how happy he was to see Peper back on television. “It’s been very humbling,” Peper told him. “I don’t know even know how to respond to the people in this community who have been so kind to me.”
Riley asked if he was familiar with the Biblical adage of “reaping what you sow.” Peper said he was familiar with it, but admitted he looked at that concept in terms of stewardship and tithing.
Riley told him, “all that you gave this community and the way you treated people, the different things you were supplying people with – and didn’t even know it at times – when you needed it, it came back to you, didn’t it? It’s as genuine and heartfelt on their end. You should be proud of that and understand that your 30 years hadn’t been in vain.”
There’s something different about Warren Peper. It’s not something you can put your finger on at first, but it’s recognizable. It’s an intangible quality, one that most of his audience will never grasp. A personality trait, a “safety net” if you will, that separates him from the pack. In the world of Christianity it’s called faith.
“I always feel that I have a safety net that a non-believer doesn’t have,” said Peper. “I don’t mean that casually, saying I take more chances. There’s a certain grace that protects me. I don’t worry about some of the petty stuff.”
You see it every day in Peper’s smooth performance at WCBD. Between the technical bugs and bad news, there he is, cool as the other side of the pillow, delivering the day’s news in a time when news is dominated by war, crime and corruption.
Born and raised by parents of strong faith, Peper shared his remarkable testimony, one that started at the age of five when he accepted Christ. “It was in Oceanside, California, I have a very vivid recollection of it,” recalls Peper. “It was a seminal moment for me. I do recognize it was a very early age to have done that … and to understand what was being done.
“I knew exactly what I was doing and I have a very vivid memory of walking down the alter that day. I’m not even sure of the how’s and why’s … it’s funny what you remember. It was a Mother’s Day. I was five years old. It was 1957. I don’t know for sure if I had screwed up at the house that morning or not, but I felt the real need for repentance (laughs). It’s funny how that’s all kept its hooks in me all these years.”
Testing His Faith
Today, Peper stands on his faith like a rock. His setback, and subsequent struggles, only served as a test of faith, one that rekindled and refocused his commitment to Christ.
“I continue to tell people in a sports analogy that, you are often defined by how you react when you do get dusted off,” Peper continued. “Do you get back in the batter’s box and keep taking you swings or do you just walk off saying I guess nobody want me? You are far more defined by how you respond when stuff does happen, because that’s life. I don’t know if there are ever any assurances that you’re safe from that stuff, but you are saved. So that’s where I get my inner strength from, my hope.”
The Channel 2 newsroom is alive, full of kinetic energy. The hungry, young 20-something reporters coming and going to the streets for live reports, meanwhile Peper dials up his radar, parsing the days’ events. This is all new and invigorating to a veteran like Peper. For him, it means fresh faces, fresh attitudes and a new role in the newsroom.
“There is a deference given to me, because of my experience and my knowledge of the community,” Peper says while glancing beyond the conference room glass at the staff in action. “I’m very flattered … I sometimes feel like a coach, trying to affect the culture, develop a winning attitude.”
It’s an odd – and sometimes awkward – situation for Peper. He is now surrounded by a team of reporters, most of them half his age who grew up watching him on television. They walk by his desk, sometimes just to catch a glimpse, maybe pick up a nugget of wisdom.
“There’s a lot of respect given to me here that, sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable with, because when it’s all said and done, you put on make-up and you read out loud.”