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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.
KEHL, Ruth Ann (Brighton, Iowa December 19, 1941-present), an award-winning entrepreneur, philanthropist, and national pioneer in the riverboat casino industry with her husband, Robert KEHL (1934-2013). Each was the product of families of low to modest means, but the Kehls succeeded in business to a level earning national recognition. Simultaneously and successively, they were restaurateurs and caterers, excursion boat operators, and casino owners – and engaged in about an estimated dozen various other enterprises.
Ruth was the third of four children born to Norbert Walter and Clara Ferne (Courtney) Kurtz, who farmed near Brighton in Jefferson County, Iowa. As a young husband and father, Norbert also delivered a mail route, earning a dollar a day. The family worshiped at St. Joseph Catholic Church in the southern Iowa community of East Pleasant Plain. Ruth handled many various chores in the house, in the garden, and on the farm. As a student at the one-room Burr Oak School and then Pleasant Plain High School, her favorite subject was mathematics. She also enjoyed reading and spelling, attending dances, and sewing.
The summer before her senior year, 1959, she lived in Sigourney, Iowa, where she helped her sister and brother-in-law, who were expecting their second child, and worked as a car hop at a drive-in restaurant. The restaurant manager was Dubuque native Robert Kehl, newly discharged from the U.S. Army, where he served in Germany as a cook. He happened to be an acquaintance of Ruth’s sister from when they were teens and the George and Christina Kehl family lived in nearby Ottumwa, Iowa.
Ruth and Robert struck up a romance, which continued after she resumed high school, where her graduating class numbered seven, and he returned to Dubuque. Despite her parents’ reservations – he was seven years older than their daughter – the couple soon became engaged. They married in her home parish on August 6, 1960, just weeks after the 18-year-old graduated, and moved to Dubuque.
For a half-century, the marriage partners were also business partners, and they always had multiple ventures operating simultaneously. Within weeks of their wedding, they leased and began operating TONY'S CAFE on South Locust Street and opened a coin laundry below their Loras Boulevard apartment. Year after year, most every subsequent endeavor was built upon the previous enterprise –including a restaurant and catering business; tourism and excursion boats in Dubuque, Quad Cities, and, briefly, West Virginia; riverboat casinos in multiple cities; construction and sale of riverboats to the gaming industry; and investments in and directorships of riverboat and land-based casinos.
As business partners, the skills of Ruth and Robert complemented each other to the extent that many friends and business associates contended their initiatives would have otherwise failed. Robert was a visionary and a big dreamer who made the sales pitches and did the deals. Then it fell to Ruth to dive into the details, tying up loose ends, getting contracts signed, figuring their finances, handling payroll and the books, and even training staff on the finer points of setting up and serving a banquet. On more than one occasion, to come up with the money for the next endeavor envisioned by Robert, they put their family home and life savings on the line.
Meanwhile, they raised a family, with Ruth shouldering most of the child-rearing responsibility. All five of their children – Bobby, Tina, Cyndi, Dan, and Kevin – worked for the family businesses, and all but Cyndi made them their careers.
In 1986, Ruth and Robert received the U.S. Small Business Administration’s national business of the year award, an honored capped with a visit to the Oval Office, where they received the personal congratulations of President Ronald Reagan. They had the distinction of receiving the first riverboat casino license issued in the United States, granted by the State of Iowa. Their DUBUQUE CASINO BELLE made its debut April 1, 1991, and a few months later they began operating their Mississippi Belle II, converted from excursion boat to casino, in Clinton, Iowa.
The Kehls for decades have been generous, especially in communities in which they operated. Their first donation to receive public notice occurred in 1978, when they acquired and donated the Burlington Northern freight house on Dubuque’s Ice Harbor, which was transformed into the Dubuque County Historical Society’s FRED W. WOODWARD RIVERBOAT MUSEUM. That museum was subsequently incorporated into new construction to create the NATIONAL MISSISSIPPI RIVER MUSEUM AND AQUARIUM, toward which the Kehls donated millions of dollars. Another major recipient of their philanthropy was CLARKE UNIVERSITY, which received $1 million in 1993 toward the recreation and athletic facility bearing their names. Ruth subsequently served as a college trustee from 1995 to 2004. Their donations were instrumental in the establishment of the Kehl Diabetes Center of UNITYPOINT HEALTH-FINLEY HOSPITAL, which opened in 2006. Also benefiting from the Kehls’ philanthropy were several institutions and organizations in Clinton, Iowa.
Concerns about Robert’s health – he had diabetes, once suffered a minor stroke, and for years endured work-related stress and fatigue – and the restrictive nature of Iowa casino regulations prompted the Kehls’ 1992 decision to divest of their two casinos and SPIRIT OF DUBUQUE excursion boat. In 1993, after selling the boats – their children acquired the Mississippi Belle II – Ruth and Robert entered semi-retirement, dividing their time between homes in Las Vegas and Dubuque. They remained connected to the gaming industry as investors and board members, primarily in enterprises headed by their son, Dan. Meanwhile, Robert and son Kevin built on speculation several multi-million-dollar riverboats, which they marketed to casino operators.
Ruth carried additional responsibilities after Robert suffered life-threatening head injuries during and subsequent to a March 2000 robbery and assault at a Las Vegas gasoline pump. He never fully recovered, with mobility and cognitive ability deteriorating over the last dozen years of his life. They later gave up their Las Vegas residence and lived full-time in Dubuque. He died at home on July 3, 2013.
Ruth and Robert shared many honors in addition to the national SBA award, including those from the National Rivers Hall of Fame, Clarke University, and National Association of Passenger Vessel Owners. Individually, Ruth in 2014 received the Iowa Gaming Association’s Women Leaders in Gaming Founders Award.
Contributed article by Brian E. COOPER. Biggest Gamble on the Mississippi, Dubuque, Iowa: Crestwood Publishing, 2017.