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As the daughter of one of Seattle’s wealthiest families, Sally Skinner Behnke, grew up in a world of posh boarding schools, summers with friends at an elite Montana riding camp and invitations to society balls and teas.

Her life could have begun and ended in the isolation of wealth, but Mrs. Behnke, who died Dec. 12, at 90, followed in the footsteps of her philanthropic family, who had been shaping Seattle’s destiny for generations.

Mrs. Behnke, who wrote in her unpublished memoir of her love of horses, history and math, became one of the most influential community leaders, a dynamic woman known for her kindness and self-effacing manner, say those who knew her.

“She wasn’t out to get recognition or glory,’’ said Lynn Hogan, chief advancement officer for University of Washington Medicine. “She saw a job that needed to be done and was focused on getting the job done … She was highly effective, and people admired and trusted her.’’

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Mrs. Behnke had served on the UW Medicine development board for years and for her 90th birthday on Sept. 21, her sons, Carl and John Behnke, funded the Bob and Sally Behnke Endowed Chair for the Health of the Student Athlete at UW Medicine, which includes the UW School of Medicine.

It is impossible to walk through downtown Seattle, without seeing the family’s influence, say friends and family.

“While she led a privileged life, (the family) felt very strongly about supporting the community,” said her son, Carl Behnke.

Mrs. Behnke was born in 1923 in Seattle and spent most of her youth at the historic family home on Webster Point in Laurelhurst, then an idyllic spot for swimming and sailing and playing hide-and-go seek in the woods.

But indoors, family life was rigid. Her father, Gilbert Skinner, was not comfortable with his children, she wrote. She and her siblings were cared for by nurses and took meals in the kitchen instead of with their parents in the formal-dining room.

Yet, the family value of community service was passed down.

“What the family had set in motion, we followed,’’ said her sister, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff. “Each of us had our interests.’’

Community service “was in her genes,’’ said Dorothy Simpson, a longtime friend. “She was so instrumental not just in giving money but giving of herself and her time.’’

Said her high-school friend Bliss Miller, “She admired anybody who was doing something for somebody else.’’

Miller introduced her to Robert Behnke, a University of Washington student from Yakima. Mrs. Behnke graduated from the UW with a bachelor of science degree in 1944 and married Behnke, who was home on leave from the Navy.

They eventually settled in Medina where they had three boys. Mrs. Behnke launched into a life of community service, particularly in medicine, and later indulged herself in a passion she’d had since childhood. She bought a horse and became a competitive show jumper.

Mrs. Behnke was the third generation Skinner to be involved in what is now Seattle Children’s.

“Sally was really an icon at Children’s hospital,’’ said Doug Picha, president of the hospital foundation. “She followed in the footsteps of her grandmother who was there 100 years ago and her mother. Sally served on the board for 25 years.’’

In 1945, she started the Olive Kerry Guild, one of the hospital’s 500 fundraising chapters, which still is active today, he said.

Mrs. Behnke was on the board at Washington Mutual bank, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and what was then the Corporate Council of the Arts. She was also active in raising funds for the Northwest Aids Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

She was involved with the YWCA since 1987 and “In many ways, she exemplified what it means to be a YWCA woman — strong, smart, resilient, committed to her community, compassionate and down-to-earth,” said Sue Sherbrooke, CEO of the YWCA Seattle, King, Snohomish.

In addition to her sister and sons, Mrs. Behnke is survived by four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her husband; her son, Robert Edward (Ned) Behnke; and her brother, David Edward Skinner II, died before her.

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Jan. 10 at Saint Marks Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E. The family suggests donations in Mrs. Behnke’s memory to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Nancy Bartley: or 206-464-8522

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