Former Arkansas Congress member dies at 80

Marion Berry known for 7 terms in House

Then-U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., waves to supporters as he boards a campaign bus in Cabot in this March 31, 2000 file photo. Berry was beginning a tour of the 1st Congressional District to kick off his re-election campaign. (AP/Danny Johnston)
Then-U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., waves to supporters as he boards a campaign bus in Cabot in this March 31, 2000 file photo. Berry was beginning a tour of the 1st Congressional District to kick off his re-election campaign. (AP/Danny Johnston)

Marion Berry, the former Democratic U.S. congressman who represented Arkansas’ 1st Congressional District for seven terms — from January 1997 until January 2011 — died Friday in Little Rock at the age of 80 following a long illness.

During his 14 years in Congress, Berry served on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations and several of its subcommittees, including Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. He was also a member of the House Budget Committee and was noted for seeking balanced budgets and a reduction of the national debt while safeguarding Social Security and Medicare.

Outspoken in his opposition to budget deficits, Berry gained national attention in 2005 when he referred to Florida Republican Adam Putnam during a speech on the House floor as a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod,” a breach of House rules that occurred during an impassioned speech in opposition to the 2005 budget resolution.

“His straight talk and sense of humor attracted attention on the national stage but those who knew him recognized that delivering results for his constituents was Congressman Berry’s highest priority, always,” said state Democratic Party Chair Grant Tennille. “He was a great Democrat and an even better public servant.”

Berry’s entry into elected office came in 1976 when he won a seat on the Gillett City Council, where he served until 1980. From 1986 until 1994, he served on the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

In 1994, prior to running for Congress, Berry took a job with President Bill Clinton’s administration as special assistant for agricultural trade and food assistance in Washington, D.C. He also served on the White House Domestic Policy Council.

In 1996, Berry defeated Republican Warren Dupwe for Blanche Lincoln’s congressional seat with 53% of the nearly 200,000 votes cast. In six subsequent elections, Berry ran unopposed twice and never polled below 60% of the vote in four contested elections.

Clinton called Berry a “fine leader, a completely authentic person and a great friend.”

“For more than 40 years,” Clinton said, “Hillary and I treasured his support, valued his no-nonsense advice and loved his amazing sense of humor … He never forgot where he came from and he loved bringing other people to Gillett for the annual raccoon supper, which for me is full of unforgettable memories.”

Berry was born Aug. 27, 1942, in Stuttgart and in 1962, he married Carolyn Lowe, his longtime sweetheart since seventh grade. The couple had two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

He grew up in Bayou Meto, first attending a two-room schoolhouse a short horse ride from his home and later graduating from DeWitt High School. He attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for two years, then transferred to the University of Arkansas School of Medical Sciences in Little Rock and graduated with a degree in pharmacy.

In 1967, he took over the family farm in Arkansas County and for 34 years he farmed rice, soybeans, corn and wheat near Gillett.

Former Gov. Mike Beebe, recalling his introduction to Berry more than four decades ago, praised the former congressman as a natural advocate for agricultural and rural health care issues.

“Marion welcomed me to his home for my very first ‘coon supper’ event when I was running for Senate in 1981,” Beebe said. “He’s been a good friend and a staunch ally ever since … He was plain-spoken, loyal and he worked hard every day for the people he represented.”

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders lauded Berry as a “son of the Delta,” with a combined love of farming and legislation, “whose mix of homespun wisdom and hard-won political knowledge always made him a formidable representative for our state.”

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in a statement on Twitter, called Berry a loyal, albeit outspoken, Democrat who was “fully devoted to serving the 1st Congressional District during his years in Congress.”

“You never knew what Marion would say on the House floor but he always spoke with passion and humor,” Hutchinson tweeted. “Susan and I appreciate Marion’s service and his love of Arkansas.”

Rex Nelson, a senior editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said Berry gave Southern agriculture a voice in Congress as he remained tied to his rural Arkansas roots.

“As a row crop farmer in the south he intimately understood the needs of southern farmers and he made sure their needs were front and center in Congress as they crafted ag policy,” Nelson said. “He was pure Arkansas. He was a great story teller but he was also blunt when he needed to be blunt with people up there on issues that affected Arkansas.”

Mitch Berry remembered his father as a dedicated public servant and a dynamic personality who enjoyed being around others.

“He was definitely larger than life,” he said. “He loved being around people and he had a lot of good friends and family and he enjoyed all of them. Nobody ever worked harder or with more passion to serve his constituents the way that he did. He enjoyed helping people and improving peoples’ lives the best he could.”

Ben Noble, a cousin 30 years Berry’s junior, remembered Berry as a passionate legislator whose roots in the Arkansas Delta gave him a bond with the rural people and communities whose interests he championed in both his public and private lives. Despite their age difference, Noble said, a strong bond was formed around memories of the One Horse Store, a store owned by Noble’s grandparents near Bayou Meto in rural Arkansas County.

“There was a place in that store called the Loafer’s Bench where all the old men in the community got together to talk about business and politics,” Noble said. “He liked to reflect on what those old men would be thinking and encouraging him to do and he would do his best from his perspective to make them proud and to fight on behalf of the people.”

Berry was perhaps best known for promoting the Gillett Coon Supper, an annual fundraiser begun in 1947 that Encyclopedia of Arkansas says at one time was one of the biggest unofficial political events in the state, attracting as many as 1,200 people in an annual pilgrimage to the tiny town of Gillett. Noble said when Berry got involved in the late 1970s, he inaugurated a parallel tradition that endures to this day.

“All the politicians of the day, Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton and all the other politicos would come to Marion’s house and have a cocktail to kind of brace themselves before heading across the street to eat raccoon,” he said.

As the Gillett Coon Supper took on greater significance in Arkansas political races, Noble said, Berry’s “little pre-party” soon outgrew his living room and eventually wound up in a large shop building on the Berry farm for a pre-supper cocktail before guests headed out to sample the main dish.

“I had an ongoing debate with him about the appeal of barbecued raccoon and Marion told me I’d just never had any good raccoon,” Noble recalled, laughing at the memory. “He brought down a master chef, a local good old boy who spent I don’t know how many hours prepping this coon and at the end of the test, I stood by my opinion that there is no good raccoon, but Marion still believed strongly that it was some good stuff.”

This story has been updated. It was originally published at 1:04 p.m. May 20, 2023 under the headline "Former Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry dies at 80," then again under the headline "Marion Berry, 7-term Arkansas congressman and champion of state's farmers, dies at 80."

 Gallery: Marion Berry, 1942-2023

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