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Commentary: Ice Miller finds gem in ag hire

February 25, 2008

Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller recently announced the formation of an Agricultural Law Initiative and named Beth Bechdol as its director of agribusiness strategies. The group includes more than a dozen attorneys and industry specialists. The recruitment of Bechdol is a brilliant move that was ultimately possible because of a family tragedy.

Bechdol is a farm girl from just outside of Auburn who graduated from Georgetown University in 1994 with a bachelor's degree in foreign service and visions of becoming an ambassador. She earned a master's from Purdue in agricultural economics and immediately took a position with The Sparks Cos. Inc., a large and well-known agricultural consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Sparks also engaged in commodity forecasting. (Remember the Eddie Murphy movie "Trading Places"?) She worked for Sparks for five years starting as a research associate and leaving as a vice president.

Bechdol's growing reputation attracted the attention of Sen. Richard Lugar, who convinced her to work as his deputy staff economist on the 2002 Farm Bill. After one year and with the legislation nearly complete, she took the position of chief of staff to an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture It was a challenging opportunity. She was personally involved in World Trade Organization negotiations and was a contact for dealing with the Department of Commerce, the National Security Council and others.

In 2001, Bechdol received a call from home confirming that her mother had been diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a severe degenerative brain disorder-one that has no treatment and no cure. Bechdol visited her mother as often as she could and finally resigned the job at Agriculture and moved back to Indiana.

It did not take long for the transition team of newly elected Gov. Mitch Daniels to recognize that a Hoosier of extreme talent had become Indiana's brain gain. Bechdol was tapped as deputy director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture working with high school classmate and family friend, Secretary of Agriculture Andy Miller. When asked why she was not hired for the top job, she replied with a wink, "Andy got there first." Together, they created an agency that successfully married agriculture and economic development.

The early phases of Huntington's disease affect emotions and personality. Many of these changes can be treated with common antidepressant medicines. Later, physical disabilities begin with mild symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease. Almost as a cruel harbinger, a smile becomes a grimace. In the later stages, the patient is devoid of all motor skills and must be tended to full time.

As her mother's condition worsened, Bechdol found it increasingly difficult to balance her state job with duties of wife, mother and caretaker for her own mother. Add one more responsibility to this busy woman's portfolio: She is active in Huntington's disease awareness and research, serving as vice president of the Indiana Huntington's Disease Society. The Ice Miller position allows her to perform much of her work from home and to spend more time by her mother's side.

But fate has not played its last card. Huntington's disease is genetic. There is a 50-percent transmission rate from parent to child, and if that gene has transmitted itself in this case, the manifestation of the disease for Bechdol may be imminent. The disease usually presents symptoms in the late 30s. Bechdol is 34. One of the few breakthroughs in Huntington's disease is that one can now determine if the gene has been inherited. Bechdol has chosen not to be tested, but may take the leap sometime this year.

And yet Bechdol's public persona is upbeat. She has a keen wit and always offers a smile. I'm sure there are private moments that aren't easy. Bechdol will persevere. She is intelligent, hard-working and courageous. Ice Miller, I commend you for your wisdom.



Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal.To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.
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