A California businessman is giving the Smithsonian Institution $20-million, the largest single donation to the museum in its 151 years. The windfall will be used to update the National Museum of Natural History.
Kenneth Behring, a real estate developer with ties to Florida, decided to give the gift Thursday as a pay back to the country that helped him become a multimillionaire. "You get to the point where you suddenly look at yourself, look at the country you are in and realize it has been extremely good to you and it is time to give a little back," said Behring, 69, the former owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team.
Officials said the Behring gift will enable them to overhaul the Hall of Mammals and update the rotunda where the world's largest mounted elephant stands as an emblem of the museum.
Current museum technology and trends fit neatly with thoughts Behring had begun to have about ways to memorialize his own worldwide travels to remote areas in Russia, Australia and Africa. In thinking about philanthropy, he says, he realized his personal legacy could be to give the public a sense of exploring the mountains, forests and jungles of the world. He wanted to replicate the feel of "sitting by the open fire, hearing animals, seeing the sun come up and, even, some of the smell."
The mammal hall, to be completed in 2002, will be named for the Behring family. The Behring money also will underwrite two extensive traveling programs.
A product of a hard life in Monroe, Wis., Behring started selling cars as a teenager. In 1950 he opened his own used-car lot with 27 cars. Soon he owned a new-car dealership whose success enabled him to go into land development in the late 1950s. In Florida and later in California, he built a series of planned communities and other real estate developments. Behring's first development is Tamarac, a town outside Fort Lauderdale.