DEEPHAVEN, MN—Kenneth Dahlberg, who as founder of Miracle-Ear helped shape the hearing aid industry in the 20th century, died October 4 at his home here. Dahlberg, a decorated hero of World War II, was 94.
Though he gained fame in other areas as well, the former Wisconsin farm boy was a leading light in the hearing care world for decades. After three months in a POW camp where he was held after being shot down over Germany, he returned stateside and took a job in Minneapolis with Telex, one of the best known hearing aid manufacturers of the time. But true to his entrepreneurial nature, he soon left Telex and founded his own company in 1948, at age 31.
Dahlberg Electronics achieved success with the introduction of the Miracle-Ear, which was among the first hearing aids to use the newly invented transistor technology. The transistor, which was invented in 1949 by Bell Labs, greatly reduced hearing aids’ power consumption, which meant that they could use much smaller batteries than were required by the vacuum tube devices they replaced.
Miracle-Ear quickly took advantage of this and in July 1955 advertised “the world’s first complete hearing aid worn entirely in the ear.” That same year, then company introduced small behind-the-ear and eyeglass models and also began providing private-label hearing aids to Sears Roebuck. Miracle-Ear soon became one of America’s most popular brands.
Always an innovator, Dahlberg took another bold step in 1984 when he developed the first Miracle-Ear franchises. His company joined Beltone as the only two hearing aid manufacturers with their own nationwide distributing networks.
Miracle-Ear’s aggressive national advertising campaign and its catchy name helped make the brand synonymous with hearing aids in many people’s minds. However, its marketing also had a down side. In 1993, the Federal Trade Commission brought charges of false advertising against the company, which were settled in 1995 when the company agreed to pay a $2.75 million civil penalty.
By that time, however, Dahlberg had sold his company to Bausch & Lomb in 1993 for $139 million.
A WORLD WAR II ACE
Dahlberg, who did not attend college, graduated in 1935 from a high school in St. Paul, MN, where he had moved to live with his aunt. He took a job as a hotel dishwasher, and rose quickly to become food and beverage manager for a hotel chain. In 1941, he was drafted into the army.
He eventually became an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Fair Forces, where one of his instructors was the future Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. As a fighter ace, Dahlberg was credited with 14½ aerial victories. He received numerous awards and decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross. . On December 19, 1944, he shot down four enemy planes. He himself was shot down three times, including in February, 1945, after which he was held prisoner until being freed by American troops
A WATERGATE CONNECTION
Thanks partly to his friendship with Barry Goldwater, Dahlberg became active in Republican politics. In 1972, that led to a brush with notoriety. While serving as Midwest finance chairman for President Nixon’s re-election campaign, a check he delivered to the campaign turned up in a Watergate burglar’s bank account. However, the contribution was legal, and a grand jury cleared Dahlberg.
Despite his advanced age, Dahlberg remained active. As recently as last year, he was still piloting a Cessna jet. In 1995, he began a venture capital firm, Carefree Capital, named for his home in Carefree, AZ. At his death he was a board member and major investor in Envoy Medical, maker of the Esteem middle ear implant.
He also received various honors late in life, including induction into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame and the Aviation Halls of Fame of both Minnesota and Arizona.
He is survived by his wife, Betty Jayne; two daughters, Nancy Dahlberg and Dede Disbrow; and a son, K. Jeffrey Dahlberg, who was president of Miracle-Ear for several years.
A memorial service will be held October 12 at Colonial Church of Edina, MN. Burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery.