Lakes icon, former U.S. Rep. Berkley Bedell passes away

Saturday, December 7, 2019
Berkley Bedell grew up in Spirit Lake and spent much of his life in the Okoboji area. He most recently lived in picturesque Naples, Florida, and continued his love for the Iowa Great Lakes area through philanthropic efforts. (File Photo)

There's no single way to remember Berkley Bedell and the life he lived.

Some will remember the man who started a fishing equipment empire with $50 in paper route money.

Others will remember the Democrat who upset U.S. Rep. Wiley Mayne and served conservative northwest Iowa for six terms in Congress.

People with ties to the Iowa Great Lakes will remember a friend, philanthropist and progressive activist who "pioneered a life that impacted others for 98 years."

Berkley's son, Tom Bedell, used those words as he confirmed his father's passing in a Facebook post late Saturday afternoon.

Before representing northwest Iowa in the U.S. House, a young Berkley Bedell was photographed with Harper Seemann and a Mrs. Ray Chestnut as they beheld the original Good Neighbor Fund posters in early October of 1959. The philanthropic fund continues today.
File photo

"Berkley Warren Bedell lived a full life of passion, action and cause until Wednesday morning, Dec. 4, when a severe stroke attacked his very alive and productive brain," Tom said, in his message to family, friends and supporters. "He loved life and wanted it to last forever, but he feared being disabled and being unable to live life to the fullest. He was granted his wish. It took several days for his body to let go … but he did not suffer. He did not spend months or years living in a hospital bed. He celebrated his causes and friends right up to his last days. Like the rest of his extraordinary life, he lived as he wished right up until the end."

Berkley Industries only grew because its determined young founder was willing to travel the country and sell a product out of his car. The company went on to be a major employer in Spirit Lake. It continues — under different owners — as Pure Fishing today.

"We decided to compete with one of the biggest corporations in the world," Berkley said in his biography. "We not only had to figure out how to manufacture a better product, we had to beat DuPont in court for the right to do it."

A series of acquisitions along with an empowered and successful workforce allowed Pure Fishing to become one of the leading fishing tackle manufactures in the world.

"If my business had not worked out successfully, there is some chance I could have adversely affected my health because of my motivation to be successful," Berkley said.

He continued to manage his company as he attended Iowa State University from 1940 to 1942. A stint in the Air Force followed college. He married Elinor Healy in 1943 and the couple had three children.

He calls his decision to marry Elinor Healy "the most important and best decision of my life." She passed away peacefully March 2, 2017, at the couple's home in Naples, Florida.

"It is dad’s time to join mom again," Tom Bedell wrote on Saturday. "We feel sadness that dad’s inspiration of unrelenting determination to make the world and humanity better will have a quieter voice. We feel overwhelmed by the loss of his love, his support, his pride in each of us, and the need inside of us to live up to his high expectations and example.

As his children Ken, Tom and Joanne grew into adulthood, Berkley's view of the world began to change.

"I remember dad going from really kind of being the old fuddy-duddy Republican establishment guy to really enjoying our conversations to becoming a progressive, liberal thinker," Tom Bedell once said.

On March 5, 1971 – his 50th birthday – Berkley went to the Dickinson County Courthouse and asked to change his registration from Republican to Democrat.

A SHIFT TO PUBLIC OFFICE

Retired U.S. Senator Tom Harkin was captured in a meeting with Congressmen Neal Smith and Berkley Bedell.
Photo courtesy of The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement

Independent wealth set up Berkley's next choice in life: The fishing tackle company continued to flourish, so he decided to run for public office. Mayne, a popular Republican from Sanborn, was the incumbent in northwest Iowa.

"My decision to run for Congress – after the pollster told me I did not have a chance – changed my life," he said.

Berkley's timing was perfect, politically. The Watergate scandal consumed Richard Nixon and he resigned in August 1974. Berkley won in November and remained in Congress for 12 years.

Berkley credited Elinor as a major reason for his political success, both at the ballot box and during time in elected office.

Elinor enjoyed learning about the nation's history and giving tours to constituents from northwest Iowa during her time in Washington, D.C. The Bedells were close friends with fellow Democrat and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. The couple considered Barbara and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley close friends as well.

"In 1974 when Berkley and I first came to Congress, we all, including Elinor and Barbara, became fast friends," Senator Grassley recently said. "We may have had political differences, but he and I respected each other very much. That respect was illustrated by a yearly valentine from Berkley to Barbara, a note on their annual Christmas card that was inscribed in familiar handwriting with 'thanks for your friendship' and a small gift of oranges from their home in Florida. Their advocacy on issues important to each of them was always personally stated in an annual trip to my office. I've appreciated both Berkley and Elinor's friendship long after their official public service came to an end."

A Monday fishing excursion in the spring of 1985 quietly led to the end of Berkley's political career. He drove down to a Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, which is about 30 miles away from Washington, D.C.

"As I trampled through the tall grass trying to find a place to launch my inflatable boat, I did not realize that some ticks were taking up residence on my legs," Berkley recalled in his biography. "I did not discover them until after I had returned to Washington."

Berkley was forced to retire from Congress in 1987 due to Lyme disease, which can be spread through tick bites. His joints ached, his memory became blurry. Reluctantly, he toured the counties of his district and announced that he could not run for re-election. For the first time in 55 years, he didn't have a job.

LIFE AFTER POLITICS

Former U.S. Congressman Berkley Bedell spoke from the podium during the new Dickinson County Courthouse's 2004 groundbreaking ceremony.
File photo

The former congressman used his recovery from Lyme disease and a recovery from prostate cancer to champion alternative medical treatments. He was an advisor for the National Institutes of Health Office Alternative Medicine.

Berkley said the business and political success were both meaningful to him "but not of much longterm importance to society." 

Plus, he feels there is more he could have been accomplished in the political arena.

At a meeting In Washington, D.C., Alan Baron, a political analyst, Democratic Party strategist and publisher of The Baron Report argued that Berkley should run for President.

"I will always regret that I never went over to talk to Alan about it," Berkley said. "If elected, I would have had a non-partisan administration and possibly the extreme partisanship that exists today would not have developed. It was the biggest mistake of my life."

Berkley called his most recent home of Naples, Florida "a wonderful retirement community," with great friends and ponds he can fish in. Even in warmer climates, Berkley kept northwest Iowa and the Iowa Great Lakes close to his heart.

GIVING BACK

Financial success allowed Elinor and Berkley to champion a wide range of local causes. They received the inaugural Benefactor's Award for their most cherished effort — the Okoboji Foundation — in 2011. Elinor and Berkley helped form the organization in 1988.

Their continued support played a vital role in a "Save the Park" campaign that helped keep a historic amusement park from being leveled by private developers. The county added a family YMCA in Spirit Lake. Trails were upgraded, Lake Park's swimming pool facilities were improved and funding helped repair shelters for pregnant teens, abused women and people looking for a fresh start after a life of addiction.

"Join and support the Okoboji Foundation," Berkley once said in an interview. "You have asked about my life's accomplishments. About the only one that will continue after I am gone is my involvement in the establishment and having been on the team of the Okoboji Foundation – and what it has done for the people who spend time at the Iowa Great Lakes. It is an opportunity that exists for everyone, without having to run for the U.S. Congress."

The Okoboji Foundation has awarded $3.8 million to 70 Lakes area nonprofit organizations from 1989 to 2019. 

"I feel great satisfaction over what our team has accomplished in improving the Lakes Region and setting an example of what a community can do if everyone will share some of their time and resources," Berkley said.

It is too bad the rest of the nation and the government do not follow "the Okoboji example," he added.

"My grandmother had a saying, which was: 'You can do almost anything within reason if you will only set your mind to it.' I have tried to prove her correct. My saying is, 'The example you set for others in the way you live your life is more important than all the awards and honors you may receive.' I have tried to set a good example."

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  • One of my best summers was working for Berkley and Elinor for $700 on Capitol Hill as an intern from Dordt College. A warm, caring couple. I remember answering the phone in Elinor’s hearing, “Congressman Bedell’s office,” and Elinor corrected me afterwards to say “Berk Bedell’s office” — to be known as a man of the people. Also recall giving tours of the Capitol under Elinor’s tutelage.

    My condolences to the family, with gratitude for a live well lived and for their taking a chance on me.

    Randall Palmer

    Ottawa, Canada

    -- Posted by Randall Palmer on Wed, Dec 11, 2019, at 8:29 AM
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