RAGBRAI's 'Mr. Pork Chop' dies at 88, leaves behind meaty legacy
Bancroft is the home town of Paul Bernhard, the original Mr. Pork Chop. Mary Willie/The Register
Editor's Note: This story was originally published Nov. 16, 2016.
If there's any justice in this life or the next, Wednesday's lunch special in heaven was a thick, juicy slab of Iowa pork chop served on a paper towel.
And all the angels were drawn to the Garden of Eatin' cafeteria situated along a bicycle trail just inside the pearly gates when they heard one of their newest arrivals unleash his signature rally cry: "Pork choooooop!"
Paul Bernhard, the food-vendor celebrity of The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa who was better known as "Mr. Pork Chop," died shortly after noon Wednesday. He was 88. The retired farmer from Bancroft in his final moments was surrounded by family at Kossuth Regional Health Center in Algona.
Bernhard's voice arguably was the most famous sound on RAGBRAI.
What began last week as wheeziness soon developed into full-blown pneumonia. He was hospitalized Saturday, but his condition quickly deteriorated.
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz on Wednesday called Bernhard “an absolute legend.”
“RAGBRAI is about characters, places and riding,” he said. And Bernhard was “one of the original people that helped feed RAGBRAI.”
Bernhard first became involved in the ride in 1979. He was a hog farmer from Bancroft who helped innovate the thicker cut of the classic "Iowa Chop," ran a restaurant called the Pork Palace and served as one of the first presidents of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
He came from a world of overalls and work boots, not Spandex biking shorts. But he soon feel in love with the global bicycling community that embraced him as their carnivorous king of the Iowa roadside. RAGBRAI riders knew to keep watch for Bernhard's signature pink school bus and the corncob-fueled grills that wafted their heavenly seared scent across the farm fields.
And they listened for his call: "Pork choooooop!"
Bernhard retired from his hands-on role as a RAGBRAI vendor after the 2007 ride and passed on the tongs and spatula to his son, Matt Bernhard.
Matt remembers his father continually extolling the virtues of the bicycling community: "I never met a bad biker,"' Bernhard would insist. "They always clean up after themselves. They’re good people. They take care of things. They take care of each other."
Even in retirement, Mr. Pork Chop remained a RAGBRAI celebrity.
When riders gathered in 2012 in downtown Cedar Rapids to celebrate RAGBRAI's 40th ride, the loudest cheers erupted when Bernhard and his throaty call were showcased on the video screens.
We asked RAGBRAI riders about their porkchop from the famous Mr. Pork Chop in Bancroft. Linh Ta/The Register
Even before he became mired in controversy, racer Lance Armstrong one year was famously nudged aside by a RAGBRAI bicyclist intent on getting a moment with Mr. Pork Chop.
Two years ago when RAGBRAI snaked through his hometown, Bernhard took a seat inside the gazebo in Bancroft's downtown park and held court as if the pope of pork. Armstrong and hundreds of other riders paid their respects on a day that in retrospect was a beautiful, fitting farewell.
"You are RAGBRAI,” rider Sherry Mullin told Bernhard that day in 2014 as she leaned over and shook his hand.
Bernhard, who loved to chat up the ladies, asked her where she was from.
Oxnard, Calif., she replied.
“Is that where they got all them whorehouses?” he said.
Matt chuckled Wednesday to remember his dad's salty tongue.
"You don’t know what he said to a lot of people," Matt said. "He was a loose cannon."
Just a couple weeks ago, Matt took his father for a drive to enjoy the balmy weather and go watch a relative harvest a crop in his combine.
"Boy, there's a lot of leaves on the trees," Bernhard remarked.
"He wanted me to get some bird seed for his little bird feeder outside his window," Matt said. "I didn’t get that done."
Bernhard was preceded in death by his wife, Ersel. The couple raised 11 children — six boys and five girls.
Oakcrest Funeral Services in Algona is handling the funeral. Visitation will be Sunday in Bancroft, followed by the funeral on Monday.
Matt encouraged RAGBRAI Nation to share their favorite photos and video clips of his father. RAGBRAI's Facebook page no doubt will become a virtual wake where riders from around the globe will share memories.
"You can hear that pork chop call on the way upstairs right now," Juskiewicz said.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson) and on Snapchat (@kylemunsoniowa).