Ken Behring is changing lives around the world | May 16, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - May 16, 2008

Ken Behring is changing lives around the world

by Kathy Cordova

Once there lived a little boy who owned a single pair of overalls and dreamed of having a pair of pants with a belt.

He was born in 1928 in the elevator of a hospital. From the very beginning, he was impatient, forcing his will upon the world - making things happen.

He grew up during the Great Depression, in a small Wisconsin town of dairy farmers. After his parents lost their farm, his father worked in a lumberyard for 25 cents an hour and his mother cleaned houses and took in laundry. The boy knew he wanted more in life, and he quickly discovered that desire and hard work would be his path to success.

"I hated being poor. When I would see people who had things that we didn't have, it gave me an interest in building up that desire and gave me the will to work a little bit harder," he says. "You find out very early in life that the harder you work, the better things are and the more successful you are. Everything comes through work."

His first job was catching night crawlers and selling them for a nickel a can when he was 6 years old. At the age of 10, he was waking up at 4 a.m. to unload milk containers at a local dairy for 10 cents an hour.

Seven decades later, that little boy has become one of the richest men in America. He owns a jet, a yacht and he lives in a 30,000-square-foot mansion filled with museum-quality art. He has hunted big game in Africa, owned a professional football team, assembled the world's largest classic car collection and built cities from scratch. He has socialized with Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, and he counts King Juan Carlos of Spain among his many good friends.

Ken Behring is a living example of the American Dream.

Finding his purpose in life

"Ken started out with almost nothing and carved out the life he wanted," says Behring's friend, Val Nunes. "That's really difficult to do. When you're around Ken, he always believes he can do anything. He never talks about how something can't be done, only how it can happen."

Behring has traveled everywhere, met every person, accomplished everything far beyond what he ever could have imagined as a boy. So, what's left for the "Baron of Blackhawk" as he approaches his 80th birthday this year?

After a lifetime of achievement, Behring has discovered the true purpose of his life is to give back through his many philanthropic pursuits.

"What we call 'The American Dream' is financial success. If you can combine success with helping people, it's even better," says Behring.

"No matter how much more, better, different things I accumulated and experienced, I had an empty feeling in my heart," Behring writes in his autobiography, "The Road to Purpose." In the book he recounts his early years and his businesses, but focuses on the work of the Wheelchair Foundation that he created in 2000 with a $15 million donation.

"No one ever had discussed or defined purpose to me, but I knew instinctively something was missing," Behring continues. "I was selfish and thought 'things' would give me pleasure. If I had only known and experienced purpose sooner."

This sense of purpose has led Behring to devote tens of millions of dollars and countless hours of his personal time to causes that are close to his heart.

He has traveled to 158 countries to deliver wheelchairs to the disabled in some of the poorest parts of the world. He has given $100 million to the Smithsonian Institution's Natural and American History Museums. He donated $7.5 million to expand the UC Berkeley Principal Leadership Institute that provides training programs for principals in inner city schools. In recent years, he has become active in China, funding cataract operations and building six natural history museums.

"It would be hard to find somebody who has given back more personally," says Nunes, who is a passionate volunteer with the Wheelchair Foundation. "Ken has done more to promote goodwill for America than any ambassador we have ever had."

Remembering the Blackhawk Wars

Locally, Behring is most renowned for building the luxury home development of Blackhawk, and for founding the Blackhawk Museum.

Behring has a self-professed pattern to his life - every 10 years he gets bored and needs to do something different.

In the 1950s, he began his business career selling used cars - doing so well that he became a millionaire at the age of 27. After that success, he considered retiring in Florida for a life of golf and fishing in the sun. Instead, the move led him to land development deals in Florida, and the manufacturing of preconstructed homes.

By 1972, Behring was ready for his next project, and when he saw the land that would later become the community of Blackhawk from a helicopter, he immediately knew it was a great opportunity.

Blackhawk would require all of Behring's business intuition, financial savvy, appetite for risk, tenacity and desire for the absolute best to succeed. His whole life had prepared him for this point.

Although the previous developers of Blackhawk had gone bankrupt, Behring acquired the property, dug in and worked hard to satisfy the challenges from local and environmental activists. The initial design was for a country club with two golf courses surrounded by 5,000 homes - the largest development at the time in Northern California.

After five years of negotiation and compromise, Blackhawk was approved. The revised plan cut the number of homes in half - to 2,500 - and gifted 2,800 acres back to the government to enlarge Mount Diablo State Park. In his book, Behring attributed his success to being "sincerely involved in the community, (immersing ourselves) so people come to know and trust us.

"We began winning the Blackhawk Wars when we began listening to the concerns of others and letting them know that we understood how they felt and were willing to address their needs. We began winning when we looked at the situation from the point of view of the local community and of county leaders who had to make decisions to satisfy all constituencies."

Behring followed the Blackhawk development with the Blackhawk Museum, which is world-renowned for its vintage automobile collection. The museum also hosts visiting exhibits and is home to the Wheelchair Foundation.

In the late '80s, Behring recalls, he went out for an evening with members of the Nordstrom family and came home the owner of the Seattle Seahawks.

"We enjoyed it, but it was time-consuming," he says. "Every weekend you had to go someplace. We went to every game, no matter where it was."

Following his pattern, he sold the NFL team after 10 years, in 1997.

Secret to a long marriage

Despite Behring's incredible rags-to-riches story and his tremendous philanthropic endeavors, in this age of "trading up" to trophy wives, many people will find his 58 years of marriage to a girl from his hometown in Wisconsin and their parenting of five children to be his most admirable achievement.

When asked about the secret of their long marriage, Behring's wife, Pat, who is the head of the Museum Guild, as well as being involved in a bowling league and the Red Hat Society, responds, "We each do what we want. We don't infringe. I let him do all the business and all the traveling and the changing every 10 years. He doesn't sit on me either."

The Behrings' life today is many worlds away from where they grew up, but they still exude the friendly, down-to-earth nature of their roots, and they have kept their ties to old friends.

"We came from a very small town in Wisconsin and we've always kept in touch," says Pat. "We always went back for high school reunions, every five years. We haven't missed a one."

"We brought the whole class out for the 50th reunion," says Ken. "Everybody who could get up and move. Many of them had never been out of their little town."

"We were at first worried that they might not want to come," says Pat. "Or they might think we were showing off. But that wasn't the way it was received at all. They all had a ball."

Proudest accomplishments

As Behring approaches his 80th birthday, it may not be surprising that, of all his accomplishments, he is most proud of the retirement communities he developed in Florida.

"I am proudest of providing a retirement lifestyle for people in Florida at a very low price," says Behring. "We provided single family homes, with recreation where people could enjoy each other's company - whether it was bingo or dancing or whatever.

"Today, 75,000-80,000 people live there and, 40 years later, it looks the same as when we built it because it has always been maintained."

One wonders, out of all of his philanthropic experiences, is there one that is the most memorable?

"It's hard to pick out one," says Behring. "Every one is a little different, yet in every one you are changing someone's life.

"Whether we are giving mobility (through the Wheelchair Foundation) or giving sight (through cataract operations) we're giving hope and showing that somebody cares," he continues.

"The world, in so many areas, there are so many people who have given up and the people around them aren't able to help. You see these people and you see their personality change as soon as they find out that somebody does care, that there is hope. Giving them hope is where we get our enjoyment."


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