Richard “Dick” Behrenhausen chose to retire in El Paso six years ago, having been a commanding general at Fort Bliss and, later, CEO of the massive McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago.
Today Behrenhausen promotes El Paso as a retirement destination. He serves as co-chair of the Paso del Norte Group’s Retirement Committee and remains active in numerous non-profits.
Having been a commanding general at Fort Bliss, Behrenhausen took particular interest in the Defense Department’s announcement last week that Fort Bliss would be getting a new commander, Maj. Gen. Sean MacFarland, somebody Behrenhausen knows.
“Sean is a very, very experienced commander, ” Behrenhausen says. “He is a great choice for the 1st Armored Division. He has a wonderful combat record and did particularly well in Iraq.”
In 1991, Behrenhausen retired from the Army as commanding general of the Department of Defense Drug Interdiction Task Force at Fort Bliss to head the Chicago-based McCormick Tribune Foundation.
While at the foundation, Behrenhausen directed the awarding of more than $1 billion in grants to non-profit agencies worldwide.
Behrenhausen doesn’t miss the irony in his move from the Army, not always known for its openness, to one of the nation’s largest charitable trusts, and a world leader in the promotion of journalistic ethics and First Amendment rights.
But Behrenhausen describes himself as an “unwarlike general” and spent much of his career pulling opposing interests together – whether bringing together the Army and law enforcement at Fort Bliss as the first commander of Joint Task Force Six, now known as Joint Task Force North, or bringing together soldiers and journalists bitter after Vietnam.
Born in Reading, Penn., Behrenhausen grew up in the inner city. He was a high achiever, excelling in his classes and serving as class president, but couldn’t afford to attend college. So he joined the Army and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
He went on to earn a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University. He also graduated from the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, England.
Behrenhausen serves on the boards of the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, the El Paso Zoological Society and El Paso Club. He also serves on the USO Advisory Board and the President’s Advisory Board at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Behrenhausen sat down with El Paso Inc. in the adobe home he and his wife Betsy restored on Rim Road, which overlooks the city.
He talked about Gen. Pittard’s future, Fort Bliss’s new commander, why El Paso is a great place to retire and what holds the city back from becoming a retirement destination.
Q: Were you surprised to hear Fort Bliss was getting a new commander?
No, not at all. Gen. Pittard has had a normal command tour. Everyone knew he was about to leave.
He probably got a couple extra months in command than I would have expected and is probably very happy about the length of his command tour.
Q: What is a typical tour?
Eighteen months to two years.
Q: Gen. Pittard indicated on Tuesday he and his family are deciding whether to leave El Paso and accept his new Army assignment or leave the Army. What’s your view?
I know Gen. Pittard loves El Paso – it is, after all, his home – and I think his wife Lucille is very happy here, but in my own personal view, I certainly hope he doesn’t leave the Army.
I think he has a lot of Army career left yet and much to give the Army and the country.
As a resident of El Paso, I would welcome the Pittards to our community. As an Army officer, I would welcome him even more to stay in the Army community.
Q: It was surprising to hear him say last week he might leave the Army.
Sometimes generals are very guarded in their public comments and other times they might reveal a bit of frustration.
One of the things that has changed about the Army since I was in it is that generals can now serve more than 35 years. That used to be the maximum limit to your service.
What that has done is it has put a little bit of a logjam at the top of the pyramid. Perhaps Dana and others of his grade are thinking, “Wow, will this log jam break? Will I have an opportunity to advance sooner rather than later?”
I have no idea if that is what he is thinking, but I have talked to others who have felt that way. My general officer contemporaries almost unanimously feel it was a bad idea to extend general officer tours for just that reason.
Q: Gen. Pittard also mentioned, probably a bit tongue-in-cheek, that he wasn’t too keen on taking a “desk job” at the Pentagon.
(Laughs) That’s not a comment that is uncommon in the Army. I can tell you from personal experience, even though I was selected for major general, I retired from the Army rather than go to the Pentagon.
Q: There are some parallels between the situation Gen. Pittard finds himself in and the situation you were in 22 years ago when you retired. How old were you then?
I was 50.
Q: So you were just about Pittard’s age, you were a commanding general at Fort Bliss and the Army gave you an assignment that meant leaving El Paso. You left the Army.
As I said, I think Dana is a really wonderful officer, and I would hate to see him leave the Army when I think he has so much yet to give. He has clearly done a magnificent job here at Fort Bliss.
He had one of the toughest jobs you can have in the Army, which is to convert a post from one command to another – from the training side of the Army to the combat operations side. He just did a wonderful job of it. I am sure he is held in very, very high regard by the people who are currently in charge of the Army.
Q: Do you know Fort Bliss’s soon-to-be new commander, Maj. Gen. Sean MacFarland?
I do. He is also a very, very talented Army officer. You know he commanded Joint Task Force North in El Paso up until 2010? Sean is a very, very experienced commander.
He is a great choice for the 1st Armored Division. He has a wonderful combat record and did particularly well in Iraq. I can tell you from his time at Joint Task Force North that the folks out there were in love with him.
Q: How did you first come to El Paso?
I first came to El Paso in the late 1950s for a three-day trip with my West Point class. It was an orientation trip to try to convince us to join the Air Defense Artillery. I’d never seen anything like El Paso. I came from the East Coast – I’d never been in the Southwest – so I was stunned by how different it was. The desert beauty, I just love everything about it. I love the climate and the pace of life.
So for the next 30 years I tried to get the Army to assign me to Fort Bliss and they never would. Fort Bliss was an air defense post and I was an armor officer. Finally, my last year in the Army they started up Joint Task Force Six, which is now JTF-North.
They needed an unwarlike general to calm everything down on the border, everything being all the law enforcement agencies that didn’t like the idea of the military being on the border.
Q: What do you mean when you say you’re an ‘unwarlike’ general?
It’s somebody who looks for a solution instead of a fight. When I say ‘unwarlike,’ I mean someone who likes to see people get along.
JTF-6 got off to a very, very bad start. The law enforcement guys were afraid the military was going to get on their turf and cost them resources. They wanted to end it, but I have a friend who was a four-star general and he convinced them to send me down there to sort it out.
Q: So when you first came to El Paso as a young cadet you weren’t convinced to join the Air Defense Artillery?
My whole idea when I was going through West Point was, “If I’m going to war, I’m riding to war. I’m not walking.” The only way to ride to war was to be in a tank. The interesting thing is, when I went to war, I was an infantryman. They put me in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
Q: Your careers have taken you all around the world, and you could have retired most anywhere. Why did you choose El Paso?
I like to say I’m an El Pasoan by choice. I’ve lived in 22 different cities in the United States. Every city has a plus and minus, but when I was looking to retire, certain things were important to me.
I loved Chicago and I loved my work but, man, I got worn out by the big city – by traffic, by noise, by hustle and bustle, by the pace of life, by the weather.
El Paso was more laidback, it certainly had better year-round weather and, most importantly, it’s a place I thought I could make friends. I had also seen that El Paso was an extremely soldier-friendly town, and I want to tell you that’s unusual.
We narrowed our search down to Southern California, Denver, Colo., and here. When we looked at the initial cost of relocation, El Paso was a clear hands-down winner.
Q: So why hasn’t El Paso become a retirement destination?
Not many people are exposed to El Paso. Somehow we’ve got to make our case, once and for all, that this is a great town for retirees.
The Paso del Norte Group’s Retirement Committee has made a herculean effort to get El Paso acknowledged as one of the best places in America to retire – an intensive two-year project. So far, it hasn’t come to fruition, although we are getting closer.
Q: As part of that effort, you invited the man who picks the best places in the nation to live, work or retire, Bert Sperling, to El Paso last year. So far El Paso has not made the list of best places to retire. Did you change Mr. Sperling’s mind?
We stay in contact with him, and he has a whole different view of El Paso than before he came here. Now one of the major inhibitors to anyone listing El Paso as a retirement destination is our high property tax rates, and it’s true.
We don’t have a state income tax, but state income taxes aren’t as important to seniors as property taxes, because seniors don’t have taxable income for the most part, but they do pay property tax.
I have suggested we reorganize our committee and get some tax experts, some legal experts, some development experts on our committee.
We need to take a look at how we can get some additional property tax exemptions for seniors. When we compared ourselves with other cities that frequently appear on best retirement cities lists, we just don’t compete when it comes to property tax.
Nobody is saying the property tax is unfair; that’s not my point. My point is if we are going to attract seniors to retire here, we have to figure out what is going to bring them besides good weather and golf, which they can get in New Mexico and Arizona.
Q: I’ve heard the retired generals in El Paso meet regularly. Do you all stay in touch?
Right now, we’re down to roughly 10. We have had one general retire here in the last three years and two since I retired here. The most recent one was the deputy surgeon general of the Army. We have a general officers casual luncheon regularly and usually have between five and eight attendees.
Q: You retired from the Army to lead the McCormick Tribune Foundation. It’s an odd move going from the Army, not always known for its openness, to becoming an advocate for press freedom. How did that happen?
They certainly are two different professions. I went from being a soldier to a sort of quasi-journalist in a major newspaper organization – two very different cultures.
My first job in Chicago was putting together a media-military conference, which brought together all the angry players from Desert Storm – the military and the press who hated each other.
You know, the military had a big Vietnam hangover; they always ascribed a lot of blame to the media for things that were reported about Vietnam, rightly or wrongly. That hangover just got exacerbated by the Desert Storm conflict in 1991, so I was told to get these warring figures together and find out why they couldn’t get along with one another.
The word “embedded” came out of that first conference. One of the general officers said, “If I’d had a reporter with me the whole time who I could trust, we might have had better communications.”
One of the journalists said, “That’s what we should do. We should embed people.”
Q: What did you do for the McCormick Foundation?
I originally went to a made-up job called vice president of development. I didn’t even know what development meant. Within six months they made me chief operating officer.
Giving away money is not easy; giving away money is hard, because you don’t want it to go to waste. You want to know where it is going and why, and you also have to be able to say no. In order to say no, you have to have guidelines – things you will and will not support. We said we would support communities, journalism, early education and veterans.
Q: As news companies struggle to find a business model that works on the Internet and newsrooms shrink, are you concerned that the quality of journalism in the United States is declining?
That’s almost apples and oranges. Journalism as I knew it is coming to an end. The new journalist will be the web-savvy Internet journalist. Eventually, people will sort it out. When you see the Times-Picayune in New Orleans go down to publishing three days a week, you know that the end is near.
Old guys like me used to like to get up in the morning and read the newspaper. Young guys like you go right to your iPad, smartphone or computer. That is the dilemma. There is always a need for ethical journalists.
As you know, the role of the quality journalist is to be a skeptic. My good friend Jack Fuller, who was the editor of the Chicago Tribune, a Pulitzer Prize winner, used to tell me, “Dick, we aren’t against anyone. We are trained to be skeptics. It doesn’t matter what party the president or mayor is from. If we aren’t skeptical, we aren’t good journalists.”
But see, there’s not a lot of skepticism on the web. There is just blatant stuff put out there. It is just a race to see who can put the most eye-catching YouTube video, or whatever, on the web.
Q: What is most exciting to you about El Paso’s future?
What would really excite me about El Paso is if, indeed, everything came together here and we got a really first-class active adult retirement community, which we don’t really have right now. I visited one that is being constructed in California over the holidays. I would kill to have that being built in El Paso.
Q: You directed $1 billion in charitable giving while at the McCormack Foundation and know a good deal about non-profits. How healthy is the non-profit sector in El Paso?
Every community has some really essential and good non-profit organizations, some that are barely chugging along and others that are going to go under. When I look at this community, and I looked at it from Chicago originally because we had the Border Fund relationship down here, what I saw, and continue to see today, was some exceptional leadership in certain spots.
I would mention Myrna Deckert, (now the CEO of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation), who was one of the best non-profit leaders I had seen throughout the country when she led the YWCA in El Paso. I would mention Janice Windle (senior advisor to the president of the El Paso Community Foundation) and now Eric Pearson (El Paso Community Foundation president).
I think the El Paso Community Foundation is very successful and vibrant, albeit small from an endowment standpoint, but moving in the right direction with good leadership. The Plaza Theatre restoration was one of the best community projects I have ever seen. It’s about as big a bang for your buck as you can get.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.