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Philanthropist Ken Behring honors his roots
Former Monroe resident Ken Behring talks to Tammy Derrickson, the coordinator of the Behring Senior Center, while touring the facility Friday. To order this photo, click here. (Times photos: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Ken Behring has traveled all over the globe, from Asia and Africa to Europe and throughout the United States, but he keeps returning to the place he once called home.

In Monroe, Behring took in sights from his childhood while driving around town Thursday and toured the senior center operating under his name Friday.

"You can't find nicer people," Behring said. "This was where I grew up and got my start, and where I got my first little money."

A major project that Behring is proud to talk about among a number of endeavors throughout his life as a businessman and philanthropist is the Behring Senior Center in Monroe. Behring contributed financially to the development of the senior center in a building that was once a teaching college within the city. He provided help with the original development, and most recently aided the facility in paying for a new parking lot and to provide a new elevator. He credited Tammy Derrickson, coordinator of the center, for running a successful facility.

"They've done a wonderful job with the senior center here for a small city," Behring said. "They started with nothing. I'd like to have a dozen of her to take around to start more of them. It's great for the retired people, lots of trips. It's something for them to do. It's been a real success."

Born June 13, 1928 in Freeport, Behring started out on a family farm lost during the Depression. At the age of 3, he moved with his parents to Monroe, where his father Elmer worked at a lumberyard and his mother Mae kept houses. Behring grew up attending school and playing football as captain of the team. He worked a number of odd jobs in adolescence, from mowing lawns to selling newspapers, and eventually went to work at Montgomery Ward at age 16 selling sporting goods.

Behring attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison but just for one semester. Losing an athletic scholarship to an injury and with little means to afford college, he moved back home and began working for a Chevrolet dealership, and then a Chrysler car dealer before going into business for himself at age 21 with Behring Motors in Monroe. That same year, he married his wife Pat. Despite the setbacks of limited resources, hard work and a bit of ingenuity paid off. By 27, he had $1 million in assets.

"I was very aggressive," Behring said. "I wanted to make money. I wanted to be a success."

In 1956, Behring moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to start Behring Construction Company. Developing land, he went into business in real estate and founded a community called Tamarac Lakes in 1962. The area, built on a mixture of wetlands and pastures, became incorporated as Tamarac, Florida, in 1963. After growing to become the 10th largest builder of single-family homes in the country, Behring moved with his wife to San Francisco in 1972. Building his businesses, he celebrated the birth of five sons along the way. He eventually went on to develop the Blackhawk, California, country club and residential area in San Ramon, California. Behring purchased an NFL team, the Seattle Seahawks, in 1988 with business partner Ken Hofmann and sold the franchise in 1997 for more than twice the purchase price. Behring was named to the annual Forbes 400 list of richest Americans more than once throughout the 1990s.

The businessman still works seven days a week. Despite slight hearing loss and limited mobility, Behring said he makes trips to Asia and Africa and Europe more than once throughout the year. Recently, he provided up to 1,500 animals to furnish more than 30 museums in China to provide education to young people there. Even at 88, he has no intention of slowing down.

"His work is his hobby," Pat Behring said.

A self-professed affinity for vehicles continued throughout the many years Behring remained in business, despite his shift from car sales to real estate. In 1988, Behring founded the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, California, with many of his own automobiles. It is known for a significant collection of classic, rare and unique vehicles. In his memoir, "The Road to Leadership: Finding a Life of Purpose," Behring shares a photo of fellow car lover Jay Leno at a dinner for the opening of the museum. The building houses 90 classic cars and displays the work of Behring's more philanthropic ventures.

The museum was given a second-floor display in 2015, the "Spirit of the Old West," with a collection of 19th century artifacts. The showcase explains the development of the western United States, from when Native Americans roamed the area to the arrival of settlers and the California Gold Rush in 1848. Pat Behring said they work to raise money for students who would not be able to tour the museum on their own.

"It's been extremely positive, and kids love it," Pat Behring said.

In total, Behring has also donated $100 million total to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. In 1997, $20 million was given to repair areas and support a traveling exhibition, as well as provide the museum with its new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003. Another $80 million was given to the museum in 2000, and the museum's main facility in Washington, D.C. was named The National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center. According to a press release at the time by the Smithsonian Institution, it was the largest single donation in the 154 years of its operation.

With success, Behring also devotes time to helping others. He does not see the point of keeping his wealth to himself.

"What are you going to do with money?" Behring said. "You don't think about it. It's natural."

Behring said they have also been able to donate nearly 1 million eyes to people in Mexico and Asia who suffer from cataracts, and have developed a principal leadership program through the University of California, Berkeley with more than 600 teachers who took weekend and summer courses to become principals due to the high demand.

One project, The Wheelchair Foundation, was founded by Behring in 2000. The foundation partners with groups and individuals to provide those in need with functioning wheelchairs. Behring proclaimed over 1.1 million wheelchairs were given away throughout the world to people who can not afford the tool basic to their mobility.

"We give wheelchairs to poor people, I'm talking really poor," Behring said. "You take them off this pile of rags that may be piled up in their hut and you put them in a wheelchair, take them out and they see a tree for the first time. Or a drop of rain. The first time they've ever seen it; very emotional."