A friendship built around ideas, not fishing

Randy Evans remembers former U.S. Representative Berkley Bedell, who “never stopped trying to make a difference in our world.” -promoted by Laura Belin

Berkley Bedell and I were both retired when our friendship really blossomed.

He made a fortune in fishing tackle. I never had the patience to fish.

Instead, we bonded over ideas — ideas about politics and issues facing the world and the United States and ways we thought today’s thorny problems should be addressed by our leaders.

We came at this from different perspectives — sort of.

He was a product of the Great Depression who achieved phenomenal success in the fishing tackle business and then went on to a second career in politics and public service.

I was the son of two products of the Great Depression, and I achieved modest success during a 40-year career at The Des Moines Register and a second career in public advocacy for better government transparency and accountability.

Officially, Berkley Bedell retired from the U.S. House in 1987. But unofficially, he never really retired at all.

Me? Officially, I retired from the Register in 2014, although unofficially, I have never really retired from my version of public service.

He made a fortune in fishing tackle and made the “Berkley” brand synonymous with fishing around the globe. But he never lost his interest in important issues facing our nation and never stopped trying to make a difference in our world.

He was always trying to get more people to focus on dealing with the income gap or climate change, federal budget problems or water quality, or the paralysis in our nation’s capital and our politics.

I got to know Berk — that’s what he always called himself — when I was the Register’s opinion editor. He would regularly submit guest columns for me to consider for publication on our opinion pages and we would talk about these. Without exception, his topics were in the news, and Berk wanted to stimulate the thinking of Register readers.

It’s not surprising that two months before his death earlier this month, Berk was still at his computer keyboard, where he wrote a timely, and deeply personal, op-ed column for USA Today on the problems and disparities that sky-high salaries for corporate executives create in our nation.

His views were significant, because Berk was an entrepreneur long before everyone started using that term willy-nilly. The fishing tackle business he started in his bedroom when he was still in high school brought him nationwide attention in 1964 when he was named U.S. Small Businessman of the Year, and the business led to significant wealth by the time the business was sold when he was a senior citizen.

After I joined him in retirement, our friendship grew over our shared interest in issues and ideas and possible solutions to thorny problems facing our country. I traveled to Spirit Lake and his winter home in Florida to talk with him about his ideas and mine to address a wide range of issues facing the United States.

He was always gracious and humble and always signed his letters and emails “Peace, Berk” or “Love, Berk.”

He wasn’t someone who just wanted to spout off about this issue or that when he had his audience of me. When I began writing a column post-retirement for several Iowa newspapers, Berk asked to be added to the distribution list. He was interested in my observations and ideas and often would respond with lengthy emails in which he added his thoughts and commented on mine.

The fishing tackle business made Berk a very wealthy man. But he never flaunted his success in the faces of other people. He was always more interested in hearing about and encouraging them than in talking about and promoting himself.

During a reception he threw in Spirit Lake for his friends several years ago, I was struck by the wide assortment of people who were there — the businessman from Minnesota who entered the U.S. House in January 1975 at the same time Berk did; the men and women who worked in the factory or the office at Berkley & Company; the fishing buddies from around the Midwest who told marvelous stories of their trips with him; and the community leaders and church friends from the Iowa Great Lakes who shared life with Berk in a place he always thought was the best this side of heaven.

In these times when too many of us view people as enemies if their views differ from ours, we ought to remind ourselves what Berkley Bedell stood for. And we ought to emulate his approach to working together to make our nation, and our world, a better place for all of us.

Top image: Official Congressional photo of Berkley Bedell from the 1970s (left) and recent photo of Randy Evans, provided by the author and published with permission.

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