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Our Town: High Springs: Larry Behnke

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Our TownWhen a Michigan boy was hired to help paint his art teacher’s house, he had no idea it would change his life.

The house stood on a hill overlooking a lake full of fish. It was beautiful. He had never seen anything like it.

Immediately this boy on the brink of manhood knew that was exactly the kind of life he wanted. He wasn’t sure what he would have to do to get it, but he was willing to take the steps to get there.

And after the painting job was done, he walked away with enough money in his pocket to last him about a week and a dream in his head that would last him a lifetime.

“What you think is what you get,” said Larry Behnke, 63, while he sat on his dock, which he built himself, by a lake full of fish, looking up at his house on the hill in front of him. “So I kept thinking that’s what I wanted.”

His dream became a reality, but not without a long journey.

In 1973 living in Ann Arbor, Mich., Larry lived the typical college student life. As an art major, he flourished in a time when freedom of expression was avidly exercised. Although many exciting things were happening, he couldn’t forget the image of the life he wanted to have someday.

While working in a communally operated restaurant, Larry took about five months off each year during the winter and traveled the Sun Belt, a southern region of the U.S. stretching from Southern California to the Carolinas. He had nothing but his truck, which he decided to live in to save money on rent, and everything that fit inside.

He lived in hundreds of cities from Key West to Berkley, Calif., changing his address each time he put the key in the ignition. Eventually, searching for the city in which he’d spend the rest of his life, he decided Central Florida was perfect, specifically Gainesville, because it reminded him of Ann Arbor.

When it came time to buy property, Larry traveled Gainesville’s outskirts and stumbled upon High Springs. He went to the only realtor he could find in town to look at his options, and for $25,000 he bought 20 acres of land that was nothing but woods, a man-made hill and a lake.

It was that moment that Larry started his integration into the High Springs community.

He and his wife at the time made the permanent move onto the property in late 1980. They had a dome tent to sleep in, a kitchen tent to eat in and Larry’s truck to live in when it rained.

A pump Larry built from the lake to the top of the hill provided water for showering, drinking and washing. Kerosene lamps provided light in the darkness. The fish from the lake provided some of the food.

“It was pretty primitive,” Larry said.

His daughter was born soon after, and Larry slowly turned the property into what is today a collection of structures including a shed, a small house, an underground art studio and a partially solar-powered geodesic dome.

Larry’s first job was at the High Springs Herald, where he worked for 20 years.

“When I first came here, my hair was down to here,” Larry said as he pointed to the middle of his back. “It took me a while to convince everyone I was o.k.”

The town decided he was more than o.k. when Larry was named citizen of the year in 1996.

After a while, Larry says he became “that guy from the paper,” which worked in his favor when he founded The Observer, a monthly publication that covers High-Springs news.

Though he was successful as a writer, Larry’s true love is art.

As a 5-year-old boy, Larry sat in front of his father one evening and watched him sketch a pencil portrait of him.

“I was amazed that something like that could be done,” he said, and that’s when he was hooked.

His father died a year later but his talents lived on. Pencil portraits are Larry’s oldest and most common form of art, and through the years he adopted more styles.

Larry works with computer graphics, pencil, colored pencil, photographs, plexiglass, 3-D art and sculptures, among other mediums.

His commercial art can be seen all over High Springs. He’s done business signs for popular businesses such as Talk of the Town Salon, The Great Outdoors and Trombone Charlie’s. He’s made logos, advertisements and T-shirt designs for local businesses and events such as the High Springs Rotary Club Car Show and the Farm to Family Music Festival.

Perhaps Larry’s favorite project is the High Springs Art Co-op, which has been open for two years. Since he was 12, Larry has been involved in commercial art, and he said that it’s exciting to be able to make “real art” and possibly sell it to people who appreciate it.

After the recent dip in the economy, Larry said High Springs suffered, but the co-op gave him something to look forward to and work toward. He never thought the town would ever have a business like it.

Whether he’s writing for a publication, designing a business logo, making an addition to his property or working on an art project, Larry always makes time to step back and appreciate what he has accomplished.

After traveling almost half the country, he found this small Florida town waiting for him, and he decided to make it his home.

“It was the beginning of the dream that I’m still working on,” Larry said. “Every day I’m so thankful that I kept trying, and here I am. I’ll be here the rest of my life.”

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