(March 5, 1921 – December 7, 2019)
Bedell, founder of a fly fishing lures company, was visibly active on Iowa’s political scene, serving a decade in Congress and endorsing presidential candidates through the 2000s.
Berkley Warren Bedell was born in Spirit Lake, Iowa, on March 5, 1921, to Warren and Virginia Bedell. He attended local public schools in his youth, including Spirit Lake High School. As a high school student there, Bedell began making hand-tied fishing flies in his parents’ basement and selling them.
Upon Bedell's high school graduation in 1939, he had several employees and moved the business out of his family home to a local storefront. That summer, he spent time traveling the United States, selling a new product, cable wire fishing leaders, to suppliers. These entrepreneurial ventures turned into the Berkley Fly Company, and later Berkley & Company. But first, Bedell attended Iowa State University briefly, from 1940 to 1942. He then joined the United States Army and from 1942 to 1945, he served as an Army first lieutenant and Air Corps flight trainer.
In 1945, he returned to Spirit Lake and began the transformation of Berkley and Company from a small U.S. company into an international corporation.
Berkley & Company, originally focused on lures and cable wire leaders, later developed other pieces of fishing equipment including fishing line, reels, lures, rods, and other accessories. The company was well-known for Trilene fishing line, a monofilament fishing line first introduced in 1959 to compete with a product from chemical company DuPont. In 1964, Bedell was named Small Businessman of the Year by President Lyndon Johnson. By the 1970s, Berkley & Company wares were being sold internationally.
When Bedell turned his full attention to politics, new leadership caused some fluctuation in the company’s stability. After struggling under other leaders, Bedell’s son Thomas took over the company in the 1980s and, under his guidance, the company continued to expand and changed names to Pure Fishing. This parent corporation remained headquartered in Spirit Lake and oversaw a number of brands, including the original products from Berkley and Trilene. Pure Fishing sold in 2007 to Jarden Corporation. Together, father Berkley and son Thomas were inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame in 2005.
Despite his business successes, or perhaps because of it, Bedell maintained a political career as well, first locally and then nationally. Bedell served on the Spirit Lake Board of Education for five years, from 1957 to 1962, before he ran as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in 1972 against Republican incumbent Wiley Mayne. Though he was unsuccessful, two years later he was able to defeat Mayne and served in the 94th through 99th Congresses (1975-1987). His work in Congress reflected his personal, and his constituents’, interests in agriculture, commerce, and foreign relations. During his tenure, Bedell chaired the House Committee on Agriculture's Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture and served on the House's Small Business Committee.
Bedell did not run for reelection in 1986 because he had contracted a severe case of Lyme disease. Soon after, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As a result, Bedell became interested in health care, particularly alternative medicine. He founded an organization named the Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine and pursued involvement with a number of organizations concerned with Lyme disease treatments and alternative medicine, including the Lyme Disease Foundation and the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine.
Though he was no longer in Congress, Bedell’s interest in politics did not fade. Along with editor Jim Frost, Bedell wrote a 2011 self-published book titled Revenue Matters, in which he promoted increasing the tax rates on the wealthy to support increased social services for the poor which would, as a result, strengthen democracy. From January 2013 to January 2014, Bedell published the book online on a personal blog, BerkleyBedellBlog.com. Bedell remained visible on Iowa’s political scene, endorsing presidential candidates through the 2000s and encouraging Iowan youth to vote in 2015.
He met Elinor Healy, a native Minnesotan, while in Ames, and they married in 1943. Together they raised three children, Kenneth (1947), Thomas (1950), and Joanne (1952), in Spirit Lake as the company expanded there.
In 1998, Elinor and Berkley Bedell gifted 80 acres on Lake Okoboji to the state of Iowa, which has become Elinor Bedell State Park. Later in life, the Bedells began splitting their time between Spirit Lake and Naples, Florida.
Berkley Bedell passed away in December of 2019 after suffering from a stroke.
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"Bedell, Berkley Warren, (1921 - )." Biographical Dictionary of the U.S. Congress
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Doak, Richard. "Another View: Former Iowa congressman despairs loss of better times." Des Moines Register. 2014 February 22. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2014/02/23/-another-view-former-iowa-congressman-despairs-loss-of-better-times/5724969/
Allison, Dale. "OPINION: Can't cut ourselves to prosperity." The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA). 2012 September 10.
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Berkley Bedell Papers (circa 1960s-1986), RS 21/07/029, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.