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Thursday, April 4, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Courtly Car Collector: Ken Behring Is No Bubba

Special To The Times

I was having lunch with The Rich California Developer. I didn't realize this amounted to consorting with the Devil, but then those were kinder and gentler days. An early spring rain had washed the hills above Danville, outside Oakland, and many tumultuous things had yet to occur, such as the bizarre precipitation of ceiling tiles from the cavernous vault of the Kingdome roof.

I was silently pondering a social dilemma: When the check came, should I try to grab it first?

Let's see: I'm a Northwest journalist, having lunch with a wealthy public figure; if he picks up the tab then I will have let money exercise its pernicious influence. On the other hand, he's got enough money to buy the average Seattle suburb outright; I've enough to buy a duplex in Mossyrock. Furthermore, he developed the complex we're in and still owns a good part of the facility. Lunch will make no bigger dent in his finances than a geoduck hiccup in Elliott Bay.

Seattle Seahawks owner Ken Behring is worth about 20 million times the tab for a midday meal of pasta and salad at Blackhawk Plaza - say, $400 million. We were having lunch because I had flown to the Bay Area to visit his classic car collection. Behring tossed in a tour of his home and a mid-day visit to his favorite local restaurant. It was a pleasant day spent with a pleasant individual.

No one believes me now when I say that, a phenomenon that illustrates at least as much about Seattle area residents as it does about Ken Behring. Self-righteousness is mighty popular in Puget Sound these days. Behring's clumsy attempt to move our beloved blue-clad gladiators to Los Angeles, city of sin, has provoked enough high-minded claptrap to sink the Missouri where it sits in Bremerton Harbor, thus assuring it will not be spirited off to Long Beach, another Golden State den of iniquity.

In the past month Behring has been likened to barnyard animals, slime mold and con artists - vilified as roundly as the weather. We've never liked him. He's trying to break a contract with the Kingdome (a well-known example of excellence) so we can pretty much heap any sort of abuse on him we want. He's rich: Fie! Goes on hunting safaris: Unspeakable! A land developer: Scurvy dog!

He speaks globulously, as if chewing marbles. He's jowly, stumpy, rumpled; unlike the lean, light, right-living Northwesterners we all are. Saint Bubba, one writer labeled him, arguing that we should be glad Behring might relieve us of the unsightly scourge of football. Having interviewed and written about him several times, I offer a report from reality: Ken Behring isn't Bubba.

He's actually somewhat courtly; engaged by straightforwardness, impatient with sophistry; willing to consider the implications of his own success, equally pleased to show off its manifestations.

The Behring Collection, housed in a museum at Blackhawk built by the developer, is the world's finest assemblage of true classic cars, those marvelous automotive works of art fashioned mostly by hand between the two world wars. He offered the cars to Stanford, but that institution was too high-falutin' to accept such a thing (cars!) from a man who helped invent suburbs. UC Berkeley took them instead, gladly, which doesn't make sense unless you know what a down-to-earth place Berkeley is.

Behring has performed some fantastic maneuvers in his life. He made three fortunes - Wisconsin car dealer; Florida suburban developer; California ex-urban developer. His genius is recognizing opportunity and making the most of it. He started collecting cars because he was enamored of them; accumulated dozens worth $100 million or so; and made money in the process, auctioning off the vehicles he didn't want. His favorite, the fantastic yellow Duesenberg in which Clark Gable wooed and won Carole Lombard, rests in the ballroom of his Danville home. It's priceless.

When he set out to develop the oak foothills at Blackhawk, he sabotaged environmental opposition by co-opting the local members of the Sierra Club. He promised green space preservation; the locals endorsed Blackhawk. That prompted a change in Sierra Club policy - now such endorsements can be made only by club leaders. Meanwhile, Blackhawk is a damn-sight more attractive than the peeled hillsides of most of King County.

Behring's opportunities were presented by happenstance. I'd love to hook up a lie detector to all his Seattle detractors and see if they would turn down the chance to achieve similar things. That such an obviously able individual as Behring could prove so inept at NFL ownership not only demonstrates his shortcomings, but what a fundamentally artificial enterprise community professional sports franchises are, snarled in webs of politics and burdened by mostly ersatz emotions.

King County's contract with Behring requires that the Kingdome be kept a "first class facility" - which, officials stoutly maintain, it is. Oh, right. Been there lately? It's a concrete trough; the color scheme is Late Winter Storm; the food proves recycling works; the seats were designed by out-of-work back surgeons. The Kingdome is about as first class as Amtrak.

The current ugliness over Behring is endemic to human separation, whether the relationship be marital or professional or, in this case, communal. This partnership, Ken Behring and Seattle, was never more than one of convenience, and Behring has handled his proposed divorce clumsily. The trouble is that, as much as we claim to be offended by Behring's maneuvers because we are right and good and true, we'd best see if we can act like it.

I don't remember who paid for lunch that day in Blackhawk. I do remember - vividly - something he told me. How big, I asked, doing my professional duty, is your fortune? He smiled, bemused.

"It's worth nothing until I try to sell it."

I've often recalled the simple heft of that thought, and my own financial situation improved considerably as a result. The rumor is that Paul Allen may fork over more than $200 million for the Seahawks. I hope so - I'll be cheering for Ken Behring all the way.

Writer and editor Eric Lucas lives on Vashon Island.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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