By Thomas Fields-Meyer
December 04, 2000 12:00 PM

When Kenneth Behring arrived last May at the decrepit flat in Hanoi, Vietnam, the 6-year-old girl, born with a disability that left her unable to walk, lay in a dimly lit corner on a pile of rags. Seeing that she was frightened of him and his companions, Behring handed her a lollipop. But he had a much more special gift to give as well: a wheelchair that would change the quality of her life. “She had a grin from ear to ear,” recalls Behring, 72. “We can’t give her legs, but maybe she can go to school if we give her mobility. It makes a tremendous difference.”

Best known for his high-rolling real estate deals and his stormy ownership of the Seattle Seahawks football team, Behring is now in the business of trying to transform lives. He has donated more than $7 million to a University of California at Berkeley program that trains inner-city school principals. Plus, he has become the largest benefactor of the Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian Institution, granting $100 million to renovate its buildings and improve its collections. Then, in June, in his most inspiring act, Behring founded the Wheelchairs for the World Foundation, endowing it with $15 million and setting a goal of giving away 1 million wheelchairs worldwide over the next five years. Although that seems a daunting task, those who know him well are certain he will accomplish it. “You don’t say no to Ken,” says Jack Drury, a friend and former public relations adviser who now volunteers for the cause. “Ken will find a way to get it done.”

Behring is the first to admit that money has defined his life. “I have always been a great believer in three things,” he says. “I like to make a lot of money, I like to spend a lot of money, and I like to give a lot of money away.” Perhaps that is because he started out with almost none. He was born in 1928 in Monroe, Wis., one of two children of Elmer Behring, who lost the family dairy farm in the Depression and became a carpenter, and wife Mae, who cleaned houses. (An older sister, Laura, is now deceased.) The family lived without hot water or central heat in the poorest section of town. “I hated being poor,” he says. “I wanted to be more than I was.” At 14, Behring set out to change his fortunes with a before-school job in a cheese factory. Then came a stint selling sporting goods at the local Montgomery Ward and making a few bucks on the side by buying and selling used rifles. “He had a knack for knowing the right time to sell things,” says childhood friend Art Spoerry, 72, a retired tavern owner.

Star fullback of his high school football team, young Behring was also a math whiz so confident of his skills that in the summer of ’47 he had the gumption to tell a fellow Montgomery Ward employee—former high school classmate Pat Riffle—that she had made a miscalculation. He asked her out, and six months later the 19-year-old proposed. “He just had a wonderful way about him,” says Pat, now 72 and the mother of the couple’s five grown sons. “He had a wonderful smile.”

That charm would prove to be a useful tool. Dropping out of the University of Wisconsin after a semester, he sold used cars, eventually opening his own Chevrolet dealership. But bored by 1956, he relocated the family to Fort Lauderdale. One day a passerby saw the impressive home Behring was having built and offered to buy it for $40,000. Behring quickly agreed. “I can’t resist a profit,” says Behring, who immediately launched his first real estate business. Later he developed high-rise apartment houses along the Atlantic and became one of the state’s leading developers. When zoning laws prevented him from establishing a planned community for retirees, he got a charter from the state legislature and incorporated his own town, Tamarac, with such services as lawn mowing for its elderly residents, a model followed by other developers. “That man has vision,” says Jim Warjone, who later did business with Behring in Seattle. “He can see an emerging opportunity and capitalize on it.”

Behring next set his sights on Northern California, where he bought a parcel of grazing land east of Oakland in 1972. There he laid plans for what was to be one of the state’s largest housing developments. When environmentalists fought him in court, he scaled back the project, building Blackhawk, an exclusive gated community of 2,400 homes with two country clubs. That was where Ken and Pat Behring built their own dream house: a 30,000-sq.-ft. replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. (itself 7,230 sq. ft.), complete with indoor and outdoor waterfalls. They decorated with millions of dollars’ worth of art and built a museum nearby to display his collection of antique automobiles.

Behring branched out again in 1988 to seize a business opportunity, buying the Seahawks. But the locals in Seattle never warmed to Behring, who maintained his residence at Blackhawk. “If there’s one thing people don’t want to see coming here, it’s a California land developer,” says Seattle Times sportswriter Blaine Newnham. Eager to escape such hostility and focus on business at home, he sold the franchise in 1996, clearing a $100 million profit. Wealthy beyond anything he could have imagined as a youth, Behring decided to put his money to use for the benefit of others. “This is a guy who is taking stock of his life,” says Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), who played for Behring’s Seahawks and remains a friend.

The recipient of the bulk of his largess is the Smithsonian, although his relationship with the organization had a rocky beginning. In 1997 Behring, an avid hunter since boyhood, gave $20 million to its National Museum of Natural History. The museum planned to display the pelt of a rare sheep Behring himself had shot legally in Kazakhstan—a Kara-Tau argali, listed by the U.S. as endangered. But after critics charged that the donation was a ploy to import the carcass, Smithsonian officials dropped the plan. Still, in September he gave $80 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It will go toward a $200 million overhaul aimed at making the museum more than a collection of artifacts. “It’s not objects,” he says, “but the people who made us free.”

Behring is most enthusiastic about the wheelchair program, which has donated 22,000 chairs in 65 countries. “I am a strong person, but when I do this, my eyes water,” says Behring, who personally delivers many chairs. In Botswana, he gave one to a girl who rarely smiled. When Behring returned days later, a nun ran to report, to his delight, that the girl, enjoying her new mobility, had joined other villagers making trinkets for local markets. Perhaps, he hopes, she has begun her own rags-to-riches story.

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Frances Dinkelspiel in Blackhawk and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.