Behnke family leaves lasting impact on community
Published 8:03 am Wednesday, February 26, 2014
For those who knew and loved him, one of Bill Behnke’s most memorable traits was his vast knowledge and passion for local history.
“You could show him any storefront downtown and he would tell you what businesses had occupied it over the last 50 or so years,” said his son, Roger. “It doesn’t matter where you were at, he could give you the history of any given property or lot in the city.”
Imagine the family’s surprise then, when they were asked to sell their history-loving father’s old paint shop to the city to be used for the location of the new Dowagiac Area History Museum.
Nearly every longtime resident of Dowagiac has heard the name Behnke, and odds are they’ve probably met one or two of them as well. The family has lived in city for nearly a century, since Bill’s father and his family emigrated from Russia during the early part of the 20th Century.
“They left the old country after all the unrest in the country following the fall of the Czars,” Roger said.
The youngest of nine children, Bill Behnke and the rest of family grew up without a lot of money, having lost their father at an early age, Roger said. To help make ends meet, Bill and his siblings took on various jobs growing up.
“The family had a contract with the city to help plow snow during the winter,” Roger said. “So our father would clear the sidewalks every morning using a horse-drawn wooden plow. And then he went to school.”
After graduating from high school, Bill landed a job with Gwilt’s Paint Shop, where he worked for nearly 20 years, taking a brief break to enlist in the armed forces during World War II. During his stint with the military, Bill served oversees in countries such as France and Belgium.
“He always said that if he couldn’t live here in the U.S., we would live in Belgium,” Roger said.
Bill was introduced to his future wife, Janice Bakeman, after one of her friends set them up on a blind date, meeting for the first time at the Timberline Inn.
“We still eat there today, and she always mentions this is where her and dad met on their first date,” said Lisa Bradley, their daughter.
The two eventually were wed and had five children together: Roger, Lisa, Craig, Jonne and Richard.
In 1961, Bill quit his job at Gwilt’s to open his store on Commercial Street, where John Scott Insurance currently resides. Eventually, he outgrew that location and moved the business to a storefront on Railroad Street in 1972, which he operated until his death in 2005.
“He never could sit still. He was always doing something,” Roger said. “He would work in the store all day, then he would go out and do estimates during the evening.”
The key to his success, like so many other local businesses, was his focus on the needs of his customers first. This philosophy earned Behnke a lot of prominent clients along the way, including Bill Hoover, the owner of the Roper Appliances.
“He was as generous as the day was long,” said Mike Heidenreich, a former employee at the paint store and longtime friend of the family. “If you needed something from him he never said no.”
One of the things Bill became known for was how he would accept food or gifts in place of payment from customers, Roger said. At one point, one of his clients, a pilot, gave he and his family a private flight down to Fort Wayne to visit Craig’s college graduation as recompense.
“Growing up in a fairly poor family, bartering was a way of life for him,” Roger said. “He was always willing to help people out, even if they didn’t have the money to cover it.”
Outside of the paint business, Bill contributed a lot of his time to the community as well, sponsoring two different golf teams and officiating local football and basketball games. In addition, he continued to operate a plow truck, even in his later years.
His strong work ethic and commitment to his city were the two largest legacies that he passed down to his children.
“My job involves a lot of customer service, and I learned that from my dad,” Roger said.
While Lisa and Roger currently live in Grand Rapids and Portage, respectively, Bill’s youngest son, Richard, still lives here in Dowagiac, serving as the undersheriff with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.
The family finally closed the business in 2010, after Craig, who was operating the store after his father’s passing, died. The family experienced further tragedy when Jonne died two years later.
In 2012, the city reached out to Richard to discuss purchasing the former store to use for the Dowagiac Area History Museum, though the price the city offered was below what the family was asking for. Richard called a family meeting on Mother’s Day that year to discuss the offer, and they eventually agreed to sell the building.
“We’re not one of those super-rich families that can afford to donate buildings,” Richard said. “However, it was for Dowagiac, our home. It just made sense for us to do.”
One of the things they considered was their father’s love of history. He had donated a lot of items to the museum while it was still located on Southwestern Michigan College’s campus, Richard said.
“He gave them so much over the years,” Lisa said. “We knew he would agree with our decision to support the museum, if he were here still.”
In December, Kim MacGregor asked the family matriarch, Janice, if she would serve as the Grand Marshall for the 2013 Dowagiac Candlelight Christmas Parade. She accepted on one condition: That her entire family be allowed to serve as well.
“If you guys do it, then I’ll do it too,” she recalled telling them.
The honor was just another sign for the Behnkes that their decision to sell the business had paid off in a very big way.
“It was a fun experience,” Richard said. “While we were traveling down the street in the limo, people kept yelling thank you.”