Elvis and Gary Pepper

A Special Friendship

Here is an article written by our Circle G Foundation Diversity Ambassador Carrie Webster.

We hope Carrie's piece will illustrate how special the friendship Elvis and Gary had and why it has inspired our Gary Pepper Memorial Award.

I became such an Elvis fan last year after watching Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of ‘Elvis’ that I wanted to find out as much as possible about him. 

However, I soon realised that entering into the Elvis world is a bit like going down a rabbit hole with its facts, fiction, and the people surrounding Elvis. While getting acquainted with those people I came upon a particular person that I found intriguing. Sterling Gary Pepper was born in Memphis on 14th May 1931. He was a huge Elvis fan and one of the original gate fans but at Elvis’ first house, he brought in Audubon Drive. The reason for my curiosity towards Gary is that we had something in common - well, apart from being huge Elvis fans - we were both born with the same disability.


A brief description of our disability is called Cerebral palsy and there are three types. Gary and I come under Spastic Cerebral Palsy. (Unfortunately, the word ‘spastic’ is now regarded as a derogatory word but it actually means muscle tightness. It was also an old-fashioned term to describe someone like Gary as I saw in an article about Gary visiting Elvis on the set of ‘Flaming Star’ in 1960).  CP is caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control their muscles, and this could affect one or two limbs, one side of a body, or the whole body. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and no two people with CP are the same. Whilst, the condition affected both our walking abilities, I can walk with the aid of crutches, whereas Gary, I can see, was mostly a wheelchair user.


Gary was known as an entrepreneur and from a young age started his own clipping business in aid to support himself financially. This would involve Gary cutting out interesting articles ‘clippings’ from newspapers of people and mailing those articles to them in return for a donation. When Gary read that Elvis’ mum, Gladys, kept a scrapbook of Elvis’ clippings he contacted her and gave her his clippings of Elvis. This is where Gary started his wonderful 20-year friendship with Elvis and his family.


When Elvis was stationed in the army, his cousin Bobby, created The Elvis Tanker fan club. He soon gave the role of fan club president to Gary. He would create newsletters updating fans on information about Elvis and answering any questions. At one-point Gary was sending newsletter to around 5000 fans worldwide. He became popular in his one right with Elvis fans. He did this role until 1963 until it was getting too costly to send out the newsletter. After this Elvis employed Gary as fan club coordinator at Graceland.


Accompanied by a big ‘Welcome home Elvis’ banner, Gary and a small group of fans welcomed Elvis home from the army when he arrived at Memphis Train station on a cold morning at 7:45 am on 7th March 1960. Gary apologized to Elvis that the crowd was not bigger due to it being a school day. (I think Elvis was touched anyway by the gesture).


Elvis and Gary spent nights together going to the movies, fun fair and they bonded over their spirituality. Gary share some of the most special moments in Elvis’ life too that included Elvis and Priscilla’s second wedding reception at Graceland in May 1967 as well as being invited to see baby Lisa Marie 10 days after she was born in February 1968. Gary attended the banquet when Elvis accepted the Jaycees award for one of the ‘Ten Outstanding Young Men Off America’ on 16th January 1971. It is said that Gary had some involvement in the name changing of ‘Elvis Presley Boulevard’ in 1971.


What I can identify with Gary is his determination and his fighting spirit to give himself agency to do things such as setting up his own business, in the face of a prejudicial society in an era where overt ableism – a word that was unheard of in Gary’s lifetime - was a social norm.

I was born in the mid-1970s and I have seen changes throughout my lifetime in the treatment of disabled people. Ableism still exists today, however, disabled people, in general, have more agency. Some would view that Gary as ‘overcame his disability’ or ‘despite his disability’ but I find those phases somewhat confusing as if you overcome your disability you would no longer be disabled. Gary’s physical limitations did not change, but in my opinion, it is more of a case of disabled people overcoming general ableism which Gary did.



What also really shines through between Elvis and Gary’s friendship is Elvis’ empathy, kindness and respectfulness as a person. A few days into becoming an Elvis fan I saw all sorts of accusations made against Elvis such as of him being a racist. I knew in my heart even before I researched that this was not true and that he respected all humans.

Elvis treated Gary like a human being, as his equal rather that pity him. For instance, due to his Cerebral palsy, Gary’s speech was quite affected, and most people could not understand him. Apart from his mother only Elvis could understand him as he took the time and attention to understand Gary. Jerry Schilling wrote in his book of a time when he and Elvis visited Gary just before Christmas 1964 to give him his Christmas present of a wheelchair. They found Gary crawling on the floor and couldn’t get up, and his mum seemed to be in a trance-like state, and they hadn’t eaten for days. Jerry stated Elvis helped Gary up and made him feel comfortable. Gary was embarrassed to be seen like this (something I can relate to) but Elvis reassured Gary it was ok and that he was there to help him in any way he could. Elvis always showed empathy and compassion without being condescending which is a rare quality in a person. Also known for his generously, Elvis was particularly thoughtful when buying gifts for Gary. Amongst the many gifts he brought Gary was a TV with a remote control (not many people had those in this era), so it was easier for Gary to change channels. 


After Elvis died in 1977 Vernon had to terminate Gary’s employment at Graceland. Gary lived the last few years of his life in Long Beach, California with his mother until he died of Pneumonia on 29th March 1980 at the age of 48.


It has been wonderful getting to know Gary and to tell his story. He was a remarkable person who had the same fighting spirit that lay side of me. 

In the article of 1960 (I mentioned before), the reporter wrote ‘His whole life centres on Elvis’. Gary was a loyal, devoted, and trusted friend who cared very deeply for Elvis and his family. One very sweet gesture Gary always did was to lay flowers on Gladys's grave every Christmas and on the anniversary of her passing. Their friendship was so precious and heart-warming and both men were blessed to have each other in their lives. Elvis said in the same article ‘I’m always glad to get back to that part of the country [Memphis]. The people are the greatest, take Gary for example; they just don’t come any nicer than him.’

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