2006 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"When we have purpose, we can change the world."
On the night that he was born in Freeport, Illinois, in 1928, Ken Behring's mother was rushed to the hospital, but Ken was born in an elevator en route to the delivery room. He likes to say that he was impatient for life to begin and he's never waited for things to happen ever since.
Some years before his birth, Ken's parents lost their dairy farm. "They reached for the American dream but didn't make it," he says. "I believe their struggle laid the foundation for my later success."
When Behring was four, he moved with his parents to Monroe, Wisconsin, where his father went to work at a lumberyard earning only 25 cents an hour. Ken's mother supplemented their income by cleaning houses for other families. She also took in laundry and occasionally helped her cousin hang wallpaper. The house they rented for $12 a month sat between a brewery, a cheese factory, and a coal yard. It had no hot water or heat, other than from a pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. "We were poor," says Behring, "but we always had food on the table. Sometimes we ate meat, but most nights we had fried potatoes and cucumbers, which came from our garden in the backyard."
In the winter, Behring slept in the cold. The kitchen stove was two rooms away, behind two sets of doors. "Our home was filled with the stress of making ends meet," he says. "My parents didn't have big dreams, but I did. I knew from the newsreels at the movie theater there was another world outside of my home town. But my parents tried to squelch my dreams. They said dreams would only lead to disappointment."
Despite their struggle, Behring never felt deprived. Everyone he knew was in the same situation during the Depression. He considers himself to have had a happy childhood and clearly remembers the pleasure of small-town life. Near tragedy struck, however, when Ken was 10 and had a serious accident. He was hit by a car when he was crossing a street. The collision fractured his skull and he was in a week-long coma, drifting between life and death. He recovered slowly and had to re-learn how to walk.
Behring began working at the age of 10, biking to cheese factories with the milk he collected from 20 local farmers. He also had a paper route, earning one cent for each paper sold or delivered. At the age of 12, Behring worked as a stock boy at the grocery store. At 14, he loaded 50-pound bags of concrete mix from boxcars onto trucks in his uncle's lumberyard. Eventually, he was making 50 cents an hour, twice as much as his father earned. When he was 16, he became a salesman for Montgomery Ward and within two weeks was put in charge of two departments: sporting goods and paint.
A star football player, Behring won a partial football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. For housing, he and a friend invested $35 in a small trailer, which they parked in back of a service station near campus. They paid the owner $3 a month to supply them with water, electricity, and a bathroom. Unfortunately, Behring ruined his knee in preseason training and that ended his scholarship. He knew that without financial help he would not be able to stay in school. Quickly assessing his options, Behring decided to pursue his other passion besides football: cars.
He became a salesman for a Chevrolet dealership. Two years later he switched to a Chrysler dealership, which allowed him to buy inventory and manage the used car business. Soon, Behring knew he didn't want to work for others. At the age of 21, he married his sweetheart, Pat, and started Behring Motors. He rented a lot on the edge of town for $100 a month. For his office, he bought a chicken coop from a farmer for $25. He strung lights on four posts, and put on his lot 27 of the cheapest used cars he could find for $900-his entire savings. He sold his first car two days after he opened and later began to offer financing. He was on his way.
"Behring Motors was the first realization of my dreams," he says. "It gave me the freedom to make my own decisions. I was comfortable knowing that my success or failure would be my responsibility. This first business was more than a livelihood to me. It was a school where I learned principles that would allow me to build on my dreams of the future."
Ken Behring went from success in the automobile industry to a lucrative real estate development career in Florida. While there, he created a retirement community called Tamarac. After his success in Florida, he developed the exclusive Black Hawk community near San Francisco. In 1988, Behring did what he believes every football fan dreams of doing: He purchased a professional team, the Seattle Seahawks, which he sold at a substantial profit eight years later. In recent years, Behring has become fully involved in a non-profit organization he called the Wheelchair Foundation, which delivers hundreds of thousands of wheelchairs to poor, disabled people on five continents.
Looking back over his long, successful career, Behring says he has lived the American dream, which for him has changed over the years. "At one time I thought the American dream was the ability to accumulate possessions. But I discovered that there are much more important things in life. I have learned that my greatest joy has come from giving without expecting anything in return. After I reached great financial success, I was neither fulfilled nor satisfied with my life. Something important was missing. When I began to give hope, freedom, and dignity to some of the poorest, most unfortunate and forgotten people in the world, then I discovered real joy and purpose. When we have purpose, we can change the world."