Also founder of the Wheelchair Foundation and Blackhawk Museum
By Allen Payton
Ken Behring, best known locally as the billionaire developer of Blackhawk and founder of the Blackhawk Museum in Contra Costa County, the former owner of the Seattle Seahawks, and the founder of the Wheelchair Foundation, died at the age of 91 on Tuesday night.
In a message posted on Facebook on Wednesday evening, June 26, 2019, his son, David Behring, wrote, “My father passed away peacefully last night at the age of 91. He was both a Lion and a Dragon and could not have lived a fuller life. He loved business, sports, travel, automobiles, family, adventure, life and helping others. His family and friends will deeply miss him and pledge to carry on his legacy. Our family is so appreciative of the hundreds of phone, text and email messages that have poured in today. I will write more reflections of him this weekend.”
Kenneth Eugene Behring was born in Freeport, Illinois on June 13, 1928. He grew up poor during the Depression era in Wisconsin and began working odd jobs at age seven. Yet, he ended up making the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans several times, and owning a jet plane, plus the NFL team.
A high-school football player, he received a partial football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin–Madison but, dropped out of college due to an injury that ended his football career, and making him ineligible for his scholarship.
Behring then worked as a salesman at a Chevrolet and Chrysler dealership and at 21, he started a used car business called Behring Motors in Monroe, Wisconsin. The young businessman was earning $50,000 a year and by age 27 had $1 million in assets.
His career as a real estate developer spanned four decades. Behring planned and developed communities in Florida, California, and Seattle. His company conceived and developed the entire city of Tamarac, Florida in the 1950’s which now has a population of over 60,000.
In 1972 he moved to California, where he is best known for planning and developing the renowned Blackhawk community near Danville, as well as the Canyon Lakes Development in San Ramon. In East County, his company Blackhawk Development built the Apple Hill Estates and Summerset communities in Brentwood.
In Seattle his company created Blakely Ridge, a planned community of 2,200-homes and Grande Ridge, a 2,500-acre commercial and residential development.
Behring was the author of two books, his autobiography in 2004, “The Road to Purpose” and in 2013, “The Road to Leadership”, in which he shares his own life experiences and the need for purpose in an individual’s life.
“I am a simple man who has lived a simple life and, in the process, learned a simple lesson,” he wrote in The Road to Leadership. “I was born poor. But I will die rich – with more money, in fact, than I ever imagined existed when I was a boy. By the world’s standards, I climbed aboard the American dream and rode it to the top, becoming a leader in business.”
“Yet as I look back on all my success, I realize that doing well financially is easy compared with achieving true success: finding a purpose in life beyond just making money. Purpose is something you achieve by giving your heart, time, love and money to providing a better life for mankind.”
And give back, he did.
After purchasing the Seattle Seahawks football team in 1988, Behring established the Seattle Seahawks Charitable Foundation in 1995, which benefited numerous children’s charities. The foundation was the most substantial donor to the Western Washington Muscular Dystrophy Association for many years.
On his birthday in 2000, Behring established the Wheelchair Foundation at a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. To date, the organization has raised funds to pay for and distribute over one million wheelchairs to those with physical disabilities throughout the world.
Behring served on the boards of U.C. Berkeley, St. Mary’s College of California and Holy Names College. He also served as the president of the American Academy of Achievement. He has been honored as Man of the Year by Boys’ Town of Italy and the Mt. Diablo Foundation.
Behring actively contributed to the cultural community in California and the nation. He gained recognition through one of the largest and finest classic automobile collections in the world, housed in the Blackhawk Museum, in which some of the wings bear his name.
His contributions to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. resulted in improvements to two of the museums. According to MuseumNetwork.com, in 1997 Behring donated $20 million for the National Museum of Natural History to update the mammal wing, which bears his name and which opened in the fall of 2003. Then, in 2000 Behring donated another $80 million which was purportedly the largest cash donation ever given to a U.S. museum by a living person. The gift enabled what is now known as the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center to restore and update its permanent and temporary exhibits.
Also, in 2000, Behring donated $7.5 million to U.C. Berkeley, to expand the Principal Leadership Institute. The newly established Kenneth E. Behring Center for Educational Improvement focused on training programs for public-school principals, providing scholarships for fifty aspiring principals every year.
He established the Behring Global Education Foundation, which encompasses and coordinates all of his philanthropic efforts, including the Wheelchair Foundation, Operation Global Vision and the Safe Drinking Water Project and museum donations.
Behring is survived by his wife, Pat, whom he married at age 21, five sons, and as of 2018, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren.