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The elderly and the powerless lost one of their most effective advocates this week with the death at 88 of Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida, the oldest member of Congress.

Despite heart surgery in 1976, installation of a pacemaker in 1982, dismal hearing and poor vision, Pepper never lightened much of his load, working 15 hours a day as an octogenarian.A gifted speaker with a droll sense of humor whose speeches had the flavor of the rural South, Pepper began his Washington career as a passionate New Dealer in the 1930s and ended it as the leading advocate of elderly Americans in the 1980s. One of his proudest achievements was helping to save the Social Security System from insolvency through reforms in 1983.

Though many Americans are under the impression that Pepper started championing the elderly only when he became old, the fact is that he started spearheading their cause when he was a 28-year-old member of the Florida Legislature.

His achievements, spanning service in both the U.S. Senate and House, included the first minimum wage bill, equal pay for women, and the extension of federal assistance to handicapped children.

Though Pepper's judgment failed him badly when he described Joseph Stalin as "a man Americans can trust," the lawmaker from Florida was also one of the first Americans to foresee the menace of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

But perhaps Pepper's biggest legacy is the impact his personal example had in puncturing a cruel, unfair stereotype. Too many younger Americans think of the elderly as feeble, ineffectual, and irrelevant. Anyone who still believes that caricature obviously never heard of Claude Pepper.