Ralph C. Behning, 60, artist, activist for disabled

March 20, 2000|By Andrea Siegel | Andrea Siegel,SUN STAFF

Ralph Carroll Behning, a Catonsville artist who became an activist for the disabled after he was injured in a ski accident, died Friday of pneumonia at St. Agnes HealthCare. He was 60.

As a commercial and fine artist, Mr. Behning painted oil portraits, nature watercolors and Chesapeake Bay scenes, some of which won best-in-show awards at Eastern Shore art shows. He hand-painted the cartoon characters on National Bohemian beer trucks.

His enjoyment of the water was reflected in his love for sailing and in his artwork.

"He did outdoor scenery, ducks, florals, water -- things that we both loved that had to do with the water. He had a great love of the water," said his wife, Mary Kennedy Behning.

A fitness enthusiast and former South Atlantic Athletic Association weightlifting champion, Mr. Behning was a charter member of the Baltimore Bicycling Club, and enjoyed running and weight-training.

"Ralph was like a bull on a bike, nobody could keep up with him," said Ronald Richardson of Catonsville, another founding member of the Baltimore Bicycling Club.

A 1980 skiing accident left Mr. Behning with no use of his legs and limited use of his arms. For months, he spent five hours a day in rehabilitation, moving his downtown art studio to his home so he could resume working.

In 1981, the Baltimore Bicycling Club ran a 12-hour bikeathon that raised money for a van with a hydraulic lift for him.

"That van changed his whole outlook because he could get out and around," Richardson said.

The accident, and a feeling that rehabilitation services for trauma victims were insufficient, led Mr. Behning and his wife to lobby in Annapolis and Washington for improvements.

The couple started FUTR, Families United for Trauma Rehabilitation, to press for better services for rehabilitation.

The organization's activism helped bring about an accredited trauma rehabilitation center at Kernan Hospital and rehabilitation beds in the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"We've known him for years. He had a great sense of humor and was tenacious. I think anybody who is quadriplegic and is able to maintain a level of socialization is tenacious," said FUTR co-founder Mary Bridget McCurdy of Baltimore.

She and her husband, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy, met Mr. Behning in 1981, amid their frustration with trauma rehabilitation offerings in the area after their son suffered a spinal cord injury.

Mr. Behning won curb cuts in Catonsville to make wheelchair travel easier.

An accomplished sailor, he resumed as many water-related activities as he could after his accident.

He continued to teach boating and sailing safety in the area's high schools for the Coast Guard and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources after his accident. He was decorated as a lieutenant in the U.S. Power Squadron chapter in Dundalk.

With the help of friends, he and his wife continued to sail.

"We sailed a lot," she said. "We sailed the Chesapeake Bay and in the Elk River and Annapolis."

A Baltimore native, he graduated from Polytechnic Institute and received a bachelor's degree in marketing from the University of Baltimore. He attended the University of Baltimore Law School for two years, leaving to pursue a career in art. He and his wife were married in 1965.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 10 a.m. today at St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church in Catonsville.

He is survived by sisters Janet Allison of Houston, Ruthette Crane and Charlotte Hollyday of Ocean Pines, Natalie Buchness of Ocean City and Constance Sroka of Woodstock; brothers William Penn Behning of Alexandria, Va., and Albert III Behning of St. George, Utah; and more than 40 nieces and nephews.

The family requests that donations in his memory be made to the Spinal Cord Injury Hotline, 2200 Kernan Drive, Baltimore 21207, attention Terri Parrish.

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