Archived Story

End of Behnke’s

Published 5:44pm Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sgt. Mike Heidenreich of the Dowagiac Police Department at his second job for 30 years and Undersheriff Rick Behnke, the youngest of five children, oversaw the 70-percent-off liquidation sale Friday and Saturday at 202 W. Railroad St., where Behnke's moved in 1972. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Sgt. Mike Heidenreich of the Dowagiac Police Department at his second job for 30 years and Undersheriff Rick Behnke, the youngest of five children, oversaw the 70-percent-off liquidation sale Friday and Saturday at 202 W. Railroad St., where Behnke's moved in 1972. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Dowagiac Daily News

The only place Sgt. Mike Heidenreich has been longer than his 30 years at Behnke’s Paint and Floor Covering is Dowagiac Police Department, 32.

This weekend he and Undersheriff Rick Behnke oversaw liquidation of Behnke’s inventory at 202 W. Railroad St., where it has been since 1972 in a former Lindsley Lumber Co. building

Bill Behnke tripled the size of the business with the move.

The 49-year-old business started in May 1961 on Commercial Street with a $2,000 loan from an aunt and uncle.

Founder Bill Behnke worked for Clare Gwilt before the two competitors were located almost side by side, separated only by the Christian Science reading room and attorney Robert Waterson’s office.

Gwilt’s also moved, to across from the football field.

An early sign of the extent to which technology would penetrate everyday life was Behnke’s computerizing paint selection in October 1986.

Home decorating certainly changed since the days color was chosen by holding up sample after sample until customers found just the right hue – though those who knew the founder still speak reverently about his uncanny knack for mixing paint as well as the “million and one tricks” he knew.

“Bill used to tell people, ‘Don’t walk on (flooring) and it will last forever.’ That always cracked me up,” Heidenreich said.

The arrival of the “Color Genie” matched tints by computer, giving the staff a formula to make a color in any kind of paint desired.

That’s why there used to be “zillions” of baby food jars scattered about – they were his measuring cups.

When he got the formula just right, Bill logged it by hand into a ledger.

Where Bill would sometimes tinker into the evening to get a color just right, by 1990 son Roger could accomplish the same task in 10 to 15 minutes.

The Color Genie used a spectro-photometer, a light-measuring device with numerous applications, from counting white blood cells or analyzing defects in manufactured parts to matching paint.

It shined light on a sample, then made 16 separate measurements of that light.

Behnke’s had it give as many as 170 formulas for one color.

The fall 1990 arrival of a “color visualizer” only made customers feel more like they had it made in the shade(s).

Using a monitor, a customer tapped into a library of room settings or home exteriors, then clicked with a mouse to electronically splash on a certain shade from a palette of 2,000 colors to envision how a color scheme would look spread on a larger scale.

Today, advances allow busy shoppers to use the same principle to try on clothes.

In the fall of 1990, Behnke’s longtime brand, Hooker, became marketed under a new name, Graham.

Paint, of course, was but one aspect of Behnke’s, along with a full-service decorating center which offered wallpaper, residential and commercial carpeting, vinyl flooring, ceramic and vinyl tile, artist supplies (a niche developed to attract Southwestern Michigan College students, but it also made Alice Lewis a faithful customer), mini blinds and window treatments, screen and glass repair, picturing framing, Eureka sweepers – even a UPS package-shipping service and a Lions Club “substation” because Bill and Craig were both so involved with the service club.

In the interest of providing personal service, Bill, who would work nights on decorating jobs, shipped custom paint colors as far as the Bahamas to the late industrialist Bill Collins.

Heidenreich, who started out framing, is the second generation with Behnke’s.

His family came to Dowagiac in 1968 and hired his late father, Don, a former Chicago firefighter.

Behnke was known as a good businessman and a good salesman and, like the late Vince Hale, always welcomed competition, whether from Big Wheel or big box stores.

But he also had a soft side when it came to the denizens of his community, like the elected official he “carried” for a year on a $7,000 job when the young professional hit a rough patch.

“Are you worried?” about the amount owed, Behnke inquired.

Yes, came the immediate reply.

“Then I don’t have to,” Bill said.

As for personal service, how about the lady who brought her dog in so some trim could be matched to the Irish setter’s fur?

Customers valued longevity, so someone might have flooring for 25 years and replace it, not because there was anything wrong with it, but they had tired of looking at it.

Rick Behnke, born in January 1964, is the youngest of Bill and Janice Behnke’s five children.

He graduated from Union High in 1982, earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ferris State College in 1986 and succeeded Larry Gorham as undersheriff in 2003.
Behnke began his law enforcement career in July 1986 as a patrol officer for Marcellus Police Department. He continued with the village until March 1987.

April 1, 1987, he joined the Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff James Northrop, who retired the following year after serving more than 19 years.

Behnke’s tenure at the Sheriff’s Office spans the administrations of Paul Parrish and now Underwood, first elected in 1992.

Although the family business is Behnke’s Paint and Floor Covering, it nevertheless proved instrumental in Rick becoming a police officer.

“Mike Heidenreich, Gary Losey, Dan Robinson, always had an influence. They’re always in need of part-time people to help out and police officers work odd shifts and generally have a little extra time,” said Behnke.

“When I was coming out of high school and college,” older brothers Craig and Roger “were there and it was kind of crowded for a small business,” Behnke said.
“I got a piece of advice from one of those guys working at the paint store, Mike Heidenreich, who said to get as much education as early as you can because trying to go back is so difficult because of road patrol officers’ odd shifts. His advice was golden to me and I’ve given it to others.”

Bill Behnke, born March 6, 1923, passed away June 21, 2005, at 82.

His parents, Julius and Teresa (Janke) Behnke, were German immigrants.

Bill graduated from Dowagiac High School and served his country as an MP in the U.S. Army during World War II while stationed in England and Belgium.

He married Janice Bakeman on May 21, 1949, in Dowagiac.

Bill was an active member and served in various capacities of the Dowagiac Lions Club since 1955 and belonged to St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Bill officiated football and basketball for more than 18 years in the Dowagiac area and was a founding member of Dowagiac Athletic Boosters.

Behnkes sold the business in 1999 to son Craig, who ran it until his April death.

Their daughters, Jonne, who works for Dowagiac Animal Hospital, and Lisa, of Grand Rapids, never involved in the business as much as the three boys.

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