Dubuque man who pioneered riverboat gambling nationwide dies - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Dubuque man who pioneered riverboat gambling nationwide dies

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Photo courtesy: The Telegraph Herald Photo courtesy: The Telegraph Herald
DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

The Dubuque man who pioneered riverboat gambling in America, starting right here in eastern Iowa, died Wednesday.

Bob Kehl passed away peacefully at 78 years old at his Dubuque home, following a long stay in the hospital.

Kehl made headlines in 1990, when Iowa granted him the nation's first ever riverboat gambling license.

It all began in 1973, when Kehl and his wife Ruth, who before then were in the restaurant and catering business, began operating riverboats. Once Iowa became the nation's first state to allow riverboat gambling licenses, the Kehls were the first to get on, and their impact has only grown from that day on.

Thursday afternoon, Kehl's family members sorted through photos of a man they describe as a hard worker.

"He worked very, very hard, many long hours," his son Bobby Kehl said. "He would never ask anybody to do anything that he hadn't done himself. He'd take the garbage out with us, he'd cut the meat, he cooked, he'd tie the boat up, he'd sell the tickets."

This work ethic led Bob and Ruth Kehl to receive the nation's first riverboat gambling license in 1990. On April 1, 1991, the Casino Belle, a 2,000-passenger riverboat, embarked upon its maiden voyage, bringing tourism to Dubuque at a time the local economy desperately needed the visitors and their dollars.

Kehl later established Kehl Riverboats, which built and renovated 13 floating casinos.

In 1986, Bob and Ruth Kehl won the US Small Business Administration's National Small Business Persons of the Year award.

Former Clarke University president Sr. Catherine Dunn has known the Kehls for many years.

"I think they single-handedly began the turn of things in Dubuque, and particularly tourism," she said.

Dunn also remembers Bob Kehl for his generosity. The Kehls donated the money to build Clarke's athletic facility, which the school named the Kehl Center.

"When the Casino Belle left town in 1993, he pretty much got out of the day-to-day operations in Dubuque and focused his attention on philanthropy. He really just wanted to give back the community that gave so much to him," son Kevin Kehl said.

Among riverboat casino operators, he added, his dad is "almost a legend, really. When you talk to other operators throughout the country, even in Las Vegas, they all view him as 'the one.' Because Iowa was the first state to pass, he had the first license. They came to him looking for advice on the boats."

"I'm going to miss his advice," Bobby Kehl said. "He's a very intelligent man, spent a lot of years learning what he did and his work ethic."

On Thursday, sorting through the photographs, awards and memories was a process of laughter and tears for the Kehl family.

Kehl is survived by his wife Ruth, five children and eight grandchildren. Two of his five children, Dan and Bobby Kehl, are still actively involved in the gaming industry, at Riverside Casino and elsewhere.

At the Casino Belle's first voyage celebration in 1991, Gov. Terry Branstad spoke, saying, "Riverboat gambling promises to be a great boon for the state of Iowa in terms of economic development and jobs. Today, tourism in Iowa especially along the Mississippi River gets a great boost."

Iowa has nearly 20 licensed casinos right now, some on riverboats and some land-based. It all started in Dubuque.

There will be a visitation for Kehl Friday, July 5, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kehl Center on the campus of Clarke University.

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