During a trip to Romania in 1999, Kenneth E. Behring, a soft-spoken jet-setter, helped an elderly Romanian into his first wheelchair. In that instant, two lives were transformed.
Behring had been asked by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to transport relief supplies to Bosnia and six wheelchairs to Romania aboard his private plane. The Romanian man had lost his wife and suffered a stroke, and without a wheelchair was left alone and unable to leave his home.
Kenneth E. Behring, founder of the Wheelchair Foundation, with a recipient in Vietnam in 2000. The foundation ships out 10,000 wheelchairs a month.
(The Wheelchair Foundation)
"He broke down crying, telling me: 'I can go out in my yard now and talk to my neighbors, and I can smoke. I just put him in this wheelchair, and it was like giving him back his dignity," Behring, 75, said in an interview last week.
That trip led to other humanitarian missions, to hospitals in Africa and Eastern Europe, to the battlefields of Afghanistan and to countries emerging from conflict, such as Vietnam. In 2000, Behring set up the Wheelchair Foundation, which has distributed more than 300,000 wheelchairs in 130 developing countries, according to a tiny box on the organization's Web site.
The organization transports about 10,000 wheelchairs each month, he said, with the goal of making sure that every person who needs one receives one.
His self-discovery came late in life. His path, from a Depression-era childhood to the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans to humanitarian, is chronicled in his biography, "Road to Purpose," which was published this year.
Born in the late 1920s in rural Wisconsin to farmers, with grandparents who had emigrated from Prussia and Switzerland, Behring grew up poor and largely alone. His father made 25 cents an hour and his mother took in laundry and cleaned houses to make ends meet.
"I grew up by myself. They left me to my own devices to make all the big decisions in my life because they were too busy trying to make a living. I was impatient and I did not like being poor," he said. "But that experience gave me that desire to go out and not be afraid to do things for the first time."
His first job, when he barely 7 years old, was selling newspapers. He earned a penny for each one he sold. He later loaded milk on trucks, cut lawns, worked in lumberyards, in a cheese factory and at a grocery store, "anything where you could make a dollar." After high school, he became a used car salesman, eventually launching his own car dealership. He later became a real estate developer and moved to California. He was only 27 when he made his first million.
He owned swank mansions, fancy cars, a jet or two and owned the Seattle Seahawks football team from 1988 to 1997, but something was still missing, something he found in delivering wheelchairs.
He said he cherished the feeling he gets when people tell him the impact of becoming mobile, rather than bed-ridden or confined to a chair or sofa: "So many of them have told me: "For us it has made the difference between wanting to live and wanting to die."
His trips to developing countries "makes me appreciate my country even more, but freedom is not free, we paid a price. We are always giving and we have to keep working at it, not for what we get in return, but for the joy of giving."
"He is giving it away while he is living -- and enjoying it. He is so understated, yet so amazing," said Esther Coopersmith, a childhood friend from Wisconsin who now lives in the Washington area.
Coopersmith threw a dinner party for Behring last week when he was in Washington for the inauguration of a Smithsonian exhibit, Price of Freedom: Americans at War, and for various Veterans Day ceremonies last Thursday. Behring, who visited Washington with his wife, four children and 10 grandchildren, also had breakfast with President Bush.
Behring donated $100 million to make the Smithsonian exhibit possible, said Peter Barnes, executive director for his foundation's Washington office, because "he strongly feels that young people need to experience not only freedom itself, but what others went through, because there is a price to pay and a price that has been paid."
"I remember World War II. It was not only the soldiers who gave, but the mothers and the wives who knitted sweaters and socks and saved to buy bonds. Everybody pitched in," Behring said at the exhibit. After his speech, veterans lined up to shake his hand.
"People were talking and crying with each other. They need a place to celebrate what they have done and where they can think of the buddies they lost. They will bring their grandchildren here. This will be a permanent exhibit that tells the stories of all those who earned the Medal of Honor, nurses and generals," Behring added.