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Christian Peper, scholar who started Missouri's largest law firm, dies

Christian Peper, scholar who started Missouri's largest law firm, dies

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Within three months after Christian B. Peper and two other lawyers started a law firm in downtown St. Louis, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941.

With three young children, Mr. Peper wasn't about to get drafted. But he was determined to help with the war effort.

So he kept his daytime job, practicing law and helping start his new firm. Then he reported to work for several hours each evening at a defense plant where he used a metal lathe to help make weapons parts.

Today, the law firm he helped found is called Husch Blackwell and bills itself as the biggest in Missouri in terms of the number of attorneys it has in the state, 420.

Christian Baird Peper died Monday (July 11, 2011) at his home in Town and Country. He was 100.

He was still going to his law office three weeks ago when he collapsed at work and was treated at a hospital for pneumonia, his family said.

Mr. Peper was known for his long association with the St. Louis Art Museum, where he was a former board member, helped with acquisitions and was the longtime chief counsel.

He also donated art from his own collection and contributed to help the museum buy other works of art.

Mr. Peper began visiting the art museum when he was about 10, attracted by the antiquities, including Greek and Roman sculpture.

In 1852, his great-grandfather founded the Christian Peper Tobacco Co. and became a philanthropist.

Christian was born on Dec. 5, 1910. On his eighth birthday, his father died during the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919. He and his mother moved in with her parents. His grandfather worked for the John Hancock Insurance Co. and his grandmother was from a Croatian immigrant family.

Mr. Peper graduated from St. Louis University High School and in 1932 graduated from Harvard University, where he studied the classics, intending to become a teacher.

He decided instead to become a lawyer and graduated from Washington University School of Law, where he was editor in chief of the Law Quarterly before studying tax law at Yale University.

Mr. Peper and Malcolm W. Martin met at the Public Question Club, where they were said to be the only two members under 35, and became friends. Mr. Peper, Martin and Martin's father, William McChesney Martin, founded the firm Martin Peper Martin in 1941.

An early client was A.G. Edwards, and Mr. Peper helped the brokerage become a publicly traded company during the 1970s.

After a series of mergers and new names, the law firm Mr. Peper helped start with four rooms and one secretary today employs some 625 lawyers nationwide.

Mr. Peper didn't think of the law as a business. "He called it a community of scholars," recalled Bob Tomaso, a partner and member of the Husch Blackwell executive board.

Matt Perlow, an estate planning lawyer, remembers how intimidated he felt after being hired 27 years ago and overhearing Mr. Peper exchanging jokes in Latin during an elevator ride.

"I am way over my head in this place," Perlow remembers thinking at the time.

Mr. Peper loved art and the art museum. He took the law firm's summer interns on tours of the museum, including viewing some of the works he had contributed from his own collection. One is a well-known landscape by the English artist Joseph Wright.

In 2001-2002, the museum selected 40 paintings and watercolors from his private collection for an exhibit called, "A Gentleman Collects."

Mr. Peper was an early supporter of St. Louis Priory School and became a friend of the prior, the Rev. Columba Cary-Elwes, and of historian Arnold Toynbee. After Toynbee's death, Mr. Peper edited "An Historian's Conscience," a book of correspondence between Toynbee and Cary-Elwes, published in 1986.

Colleagues remember Mr. Peper as a gentleman and a scholar. He once apologized profusely after finding himself wearing a hat indoors in front of a group of ladies.

The funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. today at St. Anselm Parish at the Abbey of St. Louis, 530 South Mason Road. Burial will be private at Bellfontaine Cemetery.

Among the survivors are his second wife, Barbara Peper of Town and Country; a daughter, Anne Perkins of St. Louis; a son, Christian Peper Jr. of St. Louis; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. His first wife, Ethel Peper, died in 1995. Another daughter, Catherine Larson, died in 2003.

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