Blackhawk developer and philanthropist Ken Behring spoke for more than an hour Wednesday night in his low-key style, fascinating the audience with tales of his life, from his childhood in a humble Wisconsin household during the Depression to his mansion in Blackhawk.
"My parents were satisfied to survive. I wanted more," he said. "Money became almost king to me."
And he told of finally finding purpose in his life in his early 70s with the founding of the Wheelchair Foundation, which has given new lives to disabled people all over the world. Behring, 80, was being named a "Living Treasure" by the Museum of the San Ramon's program of the same name, at the Danville Community Center.
Behring was already a successful real estate developer with investments all over the world when, in 1971, he first saw the acreage that would become Blackhawk.
He was on business in Japan when a golf course architect associate called and said he'd found the perfect spot for a new course but needed someone with money to develop the land around it. Behring stopped in San Francisco on his way home, rented a helicopter and viewed the Blackhawk Ranch and surrounding property. His corporation ended up with 6,200 acres and plans for 4,800 homes.
"He designed the golf course - and then the 'Blackhawk Wars' began," said Behring, recalling how the environmental and open space groups fought against him.
"There were friends of the birds, there were friends of the bees," said Behring, "everyone except friends of the developer."
The project was scaled down to 2,400 homes, and 2,000 acres became dedicated open space. Behring said he was pleased with the outcome, saying, "It made us more aware of how to build better."
"We built a very, very high quality subdivision," he added. "Every city in China has been here to look at Blackhawk - they all want Blackhawk." His corporation also built Canyon Lakes, which he said made 10 times as much money as the Blackhawk development.
Behring said his retirement communities in Florida are one of his proudest accomplishments because they are affordable homes with recreation, for people who might otherwise be lonely.
He also told of how he became the owner of the Seattle Seahawks from 1988-97 after a social engagement with the Nordstrom family in Seattle. "By the time I got on the airplane I owned a football team," he recalled. "I'd never been to a professional football game before - or since."
But, he said, despite all his business and financial successes, he felt something was missing.
"I'd keep climbing to the top of the American Dream - but the top of the mountain was vacant," he said. "I already owned everything."
While doing business all over the world, he began to deliver medicine and supplies to poor countries in Africa. "I enjoyed it but it never really hit the spot," he said.
It was when he delivered the first wheelchairs to developing countries that he found satisfaction. In these places, he said, people are often embarrassed by disabled family members and are challenged to provide for them.
"During the Kosovo War someone asked me to take some chairs and drop them off," he said. While doing so he met a man who was spending all his days and nights inside. "The man said now he could go into the yard and smoke and visit with his neighbors," Behring recalled.
"In 2000, there was a little girl in Vietnam who had never been off her pile of rags," he continued. He gave her a lollypop and cajoled her into trying the new wheelchair - and she began to giggle with delight. "The photographer caught her smile," said Behring. It is on the back jacket of his book, "Road to Purpose: One Man's Journey Bringing Hope to Millions and Finding Purpose Along the Way."
Since then Behring has personally delivered thousands of wheelchairs around the world.
"They grab your hands, tears running down their faces - they know finally someone cares," he said.
Behring provided copies of his book for everyone and visited with folks as he inscribed their copies. Pat, his wife of 53 years, was also at the event. They have five sons and 10 grandchildren.
Program organizer Betty Joyce estimated that 80 people were in attendance.
"I was really happy," she said. "Most of the people had tears in their eyes."
The Living Treasure program is funded by the Lesher Foundation. Call the Museum at 837-3750 for more information.
==BI Read the full story about the Blackhawk Wars at www.danvilleweekly.com/story.php?story_id=2923==
THE WHEELCHAIR FOUNDATION
A total of 744,316 wheelchairs has been committed or delivered in 172 countries and geographical areas, according to wheelchairfoundation.org.
"It is estimated that over 100 million people with physical disabilities worldwide need wheelchairs, though less than 1 percent own or have access to one," reads the site.
"The number of physically disabled is likely underestimated, due to the difficulty in accounting for 'forgotten' citizens who spend their lives hidden from sight."
The entire cost of worldwide distribution of a wheelchair from start to finish is $150. For more information, visit wheelchairfoundation.org or telephone 791-2340.