Marion Berry, a presidential aide during the Clinton administration and seven-term Democratic congressman from Arkansas, died Friday in Little Rock at after a long illness. He was 80.
He was appointed special assistant to the president for agricultural trade and food assistance and a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council in 1994. He resigned to run for Congress two years later to succeed Blanche Lincoln, who ran for and won a Senate seat. He defeated Republican Warren Dupwe with 53% of nearly 200,000 votes cast, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
He subsequently ran unopposed twice and won by at least 60% of the vote in four other campaigns.
In Congress, he was part of the “Blue Dog” caucus of conservative and centrist Democrats who enjoyed significant influence in the 1990s through his retirement after the 2010 election.
A native of Stuttgart, Arkansas, Berry graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Medical Science and became a pharmacist in Little Rock before returning to his home farm near Gillett, where he grew rice, soybeans, corn and wheat. He was a city alderman in Gillett and a member of the Arkansas County Farmers Cooperative board and a member of the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission.
Arkansas politicians across the political spectrum expressed tributes to Berry.
“Marion Berry was a fine leader, a completely authentic person and a great friend,” said former President Bill Clinton, who once was governor of Arkansas. “For more than 40 years, Hillary and I treasured his support, valued his no-nonsense advice and loved his amazing sense of humor. I’m grateful for his service in my administration and later in Congress. 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’s cousin Ben Noble, executive vice president of Riceland Foods in Stuttgart, Arkansas, and a former staffer for Sens. Lincoln and Dale Bumpers, described to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette how Berry made a political institution out of an annual fund-raiser in his home town.
The Gillett Coon Supper began in 1947 and became “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,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Noble said Berry inaugurated a parallel tradition beginning in the 1970s. “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. The early party eventually outgrew his living room and wound up in a large shop building on the Berry farm.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Berry “a son of the Delta” and “a farmer and a statesman, whose mix of homespun wisdom and hard-won political knowledge always made him a formidable representative for our state.”
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said Berry “stood strong for Arkansas farmers and built a legacy through his former staff and scholarship program at [Arkansas State University] for students interested in public service.”
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Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican who succeeded Berry in Congress, said that Berry's public service career “was spent working on behalf of constituents across farming and agriculture to infrastructure and economic development” who was known for his quick wit and dedication to his home town.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson remembered Berry as a devoted public servant.
“You never knew what Marion would say on the House floor, but he always spoke with passion and humor,” Hutchinson said. Another former governor, Mike Beebe, noted that as both a farmer and a pharmacist, Berry was “a natural advocate for agricultural issues and for the health of his rural constituents.”
Former Berry congressional staffer Dana Brooks, now President &CEO of the Pet Food Institute, said she has "so many memorable stories to share about her former boss.
"Everyone loved him for his down-to-earth but larger-than-life personality in Washington, D.C. Personally, working for him changed my life through a career path that I could have never dreamed of growing up in a small town in southeast Arkansas. He gave me a chance to be his first female agriculture legislative assistant in 2000. What I learned most from Rep. Berry was to never compromise on integrity, truth, hard-work, and kindness. Above all, be yourself. I'm so eternally grateful for being a small part of his legacy."
Robert Marion Berry is survived by his wife of 60 years, Carolyn Lowe Berry, daughter Ann Coggin, son Mitch Berry, four grandchildren, a great-grandson and his brother Mark Berry.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 24 at the Gillett Methodist Church. The family suggests memorial contributions to DeWitt City Hospital Auxiliary, PO Box 32, DeWitt AR 72042, UAMS Auxiliary Patient Support Fund at WPRCI Auxiliary Patient Support, 4301 W. Markham #721-1, Little Rock AR 72205, or Gillett Methodist Church, PO Box 88, Gillett AR 72055.