Everywhere you walk at the Aberdeen Heights retirement community in Kirkwood, a 93-year-old resident has left his whimsical mark.
A mother and baby giraffe in the library. A turtle, fishes and seahorse on the pool deck. And now, a refurbished family with a pair of dogs in the courtyard.
The metal pieces are the work of Donald Behrens, a retired surgeon from Ladue who took up welding and metal sculpting. He created dozens of whimsical sculptures and figures with whatever he could find: old gears, springs, even artificial hips, surgical scissors and speculums.
He even taught metal arts at John Burroughs School in Ladue, where the couple’s five children attended. (A sixth child died as a youngster.)
“We visited a lot of junkyards,” says his wife, Audrey, 90.
The couple has been married 67 years, Beaumont High School sweethearts. Behrens’ hobby kept him tinkering away in his basement studio. His wife put cheesecloth over the vents of their Ladue home to keep dust from traveling upstairs.
His sculptures have appeared at the Missouri Botanical Garden and City Museum, and he gave many to friends and family.
“He was very prolific,” says daughter Barbara Behrens. “We all have stuff.”
You may have seen the mailbox outside her Clayton home: It’s a large, metal goose, its breastplate a door.
One “family” of sculptures in particular lived in the Behrens’ yard for many years: a woman with a feathered hat and long skirt, a man on an old-fashioned bicycle, a little boy and two dogs. When the couple moved to Aberdeen Heights, the metal family — made mostly of mufflers and other car parts — eventually moved with them.
Over time, the pieces rusted and needed repair. So Bethany Holohan, the life enrichment director at Aberdeen Heights, contacted John Burroughs School for help. A teacher recommended student Grant Kinch, 18, who enjoyed welding in his industrial technology class and needed a senior service project.
The sculptures were in bad shape, Kinch says. He welded them, glued them and used industrial foam to put them back together. But he was happy to help and says it was a fun project.
He will study computer science at Washington University in the fall.
Kinch arranged the repaired sculptures in a courtyard at Aberdeen Heights on Wednesday, where Behrens’ family members gathered for an unveiling — complete with lemonade and cake. The feathered-hat-wearing metal woman, who needed the most work, remained on a side lawn.
“Is your basement full of torches, too?” Audrey Behrens asked Kinch teasingly.
Donald Behrens, who has aphasia and cannot speak, watched from his wheelchair. He smiled and seemed to soak up the attention.
When he could get around more, he loved walking the hallways, a duck or buffalo sculpture under his arm, looking for new nooks and shelves in which to place them. He entered his pieces in Aberdeen Heights art shows and has won.
The other residents get a kick out of his art, and the pieces are great conversation starters, family members say. Now, Behrens can wake up in his room, look outside and see the newly refurbished family.
Behrens’ family appreciates Kinch’s help.
“When people get older,” says daughter-in-law Evelyne Schuetz, “other people don’t remember what you’ve accomplished.”