Ken probably had a joke for this. But we don’t feel like laughing.
Ken Behrens died last night. A household name because of his 30-plus years on Bloomington, Ill., radio station WJBC, Ken was occasionally an actor and stand-up comedian but always a loving husband, father and grandfather. His death was not unexpected, cancer finally prevailing in a 26- month-long battle.
It was my good fortune to work alongside Ken for most of his years at WJBC. His love of classic comedy impelled him to land some of its top names for interviews. His many listeners were consistently surprised, entertained and educated.
Ken was a student of humor. After each joke telling, he would intuitively analyze the delivery and reaction, cataloging its delivery, effectiveness and possible improvement. If I had what I thought might be a fresh story for him, Ken would patiently listen and then inject the punch line better than I ever could. That would be followed by laughter, then, instantly, a funnier story on the same subject. What an archive of humor the man possessed.
In my final conversation with Ken, we reminisced about a show we did before a couple thousand people to celebrate the 25th year of the talk show “Problems & Solutions.” Yes, we agreed, it was a great show, allowing, perhaps, that an objective listener to an archival tape may not support that assessment. The highlight, truly, was Ken Behrens at the grand piano. He was pretty darned good at the keyboard (a better piano player than trombonist), and had the audience roaring with his blend of humor and good music. He was in his element, making people laugh.
Ken was, shall we say, parsimonious. He played the part for a laugh, even having a spring-loaded, paper moth fly from his billfold on that rare occasion he took it out. It made me laugh every time.
One of the best jokes ever played on Ken and his thrifty nature occurred as he led several dozen fans on a trip to New York City. At check-out time on the day Ken’s group was leaving a Manhattan hotel, WJBC’s morning show guys (Don Munson and Alan Sender) pranked Ken with an on-air call, pretending to be hotel officials, saying that some of the people in Ken’s group hadn’t settled their final bills and insisting that Ken would have to provide a credit card to make things good. Silence. Then more silence. It was, Ken later admitted, a temporarily traumatic moment.
Ken was long on common sense and short on patience for any squandering of tax dollars, sometimes appropriately skeptical but never cynical.
He loved life and, even at the end which seems unfair, expressed gratitude for the full life he had lived, for Cindi, his dear wife of 40 years, and their daughters Kate and Kim. He was so proud of them.
We’re thankful he was able to celebrate his grandson’s first birthday but disheartened to know that little Kevin will miss growing up around Grandpa Ken. It would have been a tremendous relationship. Can you imagine Ken teaching (then dissecting) his grandson’s “knock-knock” jokes?
We—all of us who knew him—will miss Ken and forever remember him as the prototype nice guy, a man of faith with a kind heart and strong work ethic, a good, kind friend who lived and loved well and—can we say it again?—really enjoyed making us all laugh. As word of his illness spread, Ken was overwhelmed by the love, prayerful wishes and fond memories people held for him.
We suspect that as Ken approached heaven, he reached into his amazing reservoir of topical humor, trying out a few “Pearly Gates” jokes on the guy in charge of admission.
You can go on into heaven, Ken. St. Peter has heard them all.