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Longtime Bloomington radio broadcaster Ken Behrens is being remembered for his sense of humor and upbeat outlook even as he stared down the disease that ultimately took his life.
Behrens died Sunday after a battle with cancer at age 71. The non-smoker was diagnosed with lung cancer in fall 2017.
Behrens spent three decades as a host at WJBC-AM in Bloomington.
Former colleague Dan Swaney called Behrens the most prepared broadcaster he ever knew. He said that’s what made him so good at his craft.
“He had the lost art of storytelling, without making him the biggest part of the story,” Swaney said. “I could just listen to all of his stories about the era that I think he loved and appreciated the most, the early part of the last century.”
Swaney said he thinks of Behrens as an "old soul," noting his love for antique cars.
“If there’s ever a person that I wanted to use the word reincarnated, Ken would be the guy, because I just have this feeling that there’s a person inside Ken that was there 100 years ago,” he quipped.
Mary Simon worked with Behrens for decades as he promoted the Conklin Barn Dinner Theatre she owns in Goodfield while he was a radio host. Behrens also performed at the barn several times as a stand-up comedian and as an actor.
“He was one of the easiest people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with and one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had the privilege to have in my life,” Simon said.
Simon most fondly remembers Behrens playing her husband while her now-late partner Chaunce played the grandfather in the show “Squabbles.”
“He was more of a personality actor, but I tell you 90% of the people on television are personality actors,” Simon said. “(He was) a hilarious comedian and he wrote his own material. He really had a wonderful stand-up act. He could (give) you 20 minutes or he could do an hour and a half.”
She recalled Behrens also performed with George Rock of the Spike Jones Band after Rock had retired to Farmer City and had become ill. Rock died the next day.
“I would say (Behrens was) one of the best,” Simon said. “I don’t know too many people who didn’t love Ken Behrens.”
Former WGLT host Don Munson worked alongside Behrens for 30 years at WJBC. He recalled his fondest memories of Behrens came when Behrens would enter the studio during their five minutes of daily transition time between shows.
“There was always laughter in that five minutes,” Munson said. “He’d come in and open with a joke almost every morning. And just to harass him I’d do my best to keep my poker face and indicate by my silence that I didn’t think it was very funny.
“At least much of the time I would end up laughing anyway.”
Munson noted the irony of their parallel lives and how it contrasted the differing approach to their shows.
“I always kidded him we were so much alike because we both came from small towns," Munson said. "Ken came from Peotone and I came from Gibson City. We were each an only child. Each of our dads had an automobile agency; Chevy for me, Ford for him. We each had two daughters. We ended up living in the same neighborhood ... but in the presentation that we had on the air it was quite a bit different and I just think comfortability was a big part of Ken’s draw.”
Munson said he stayed in contact with Behrens during his lengthy cancer battle.
“The grace with which he handled that was just unbelievable,” Munson said. “It wasn’t like he avoided talking about it. He was willing to talk about it.”
Swaney said that gets to the essence of who Behrens was, someone who simply wanted to make people smile. He said that persona came across the airwaves every day for decades.
“He always thought his time on the radio was limited, why not make it something that will make people happy. To that end, I have no doubt and no reservation and say Ken accomplished that goal very well.”
Behrens retired from broadcasting in 2002, which means anyone college age or younger likely never heard his show. Swaney said they don't know what they missed.
Visitation is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 5 from 3-8 p.m. at Normal First United Methodist Church, 211 N. School. St. The funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the church.
The family asks memorials be given to Normal First United Methodist Church, Midwest Food Bank in Normal or to the charity of their choice.