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A California real estate tycoon turned philanthropist today gave the Smithsonian Institution $80 million, the biggest donation in its history.

The gift from Kenneth Behring, 72, went to the National Museum of American History.

Behring, who sits on the Smithsonian's board and is a recipient of its James Smithson Award, gave $20 million to the National Museum of Natural History in 1997.

He said he hoped his latest gift would help the museum tell the story of the "pursuit of the American dream."

"I cannot think of a more fitting way to give thanks to this land of opportunity than by helping the Smithsonian's Museum of American History showcase the ideas, technologies and, most of all, the people who continue to make the United States the greatest country in the world," he said.

Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small who accepted the donation called it unprecedented.

"It is private philanthropy such as this gift from Ken, combined with our congressional support, that will move the Smithsonian Institution into the 21st century," he said.

The first project to benefit from Behring's donation will be an exhibition called "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," which opens Nov. 17, 10 days after the U.S. presidential election.

The exhibition -- which will get $4 million -- will display artifacts representing presidents from Washington to Bill Clinton.

The museum's director, Spencer Crew, said other plans included the creation of thematic exhibition halls highlighting the history and contributions of the American people in preserving and protecting freedom.

Another area will be devoted to people who make great contributions to the United States and truly epitomize "the American spirit."

Behring made his fortune first as a used car dealer in his hometown of Monroe, Wis., and then in real estate in Florida and California.

He developed the exclusive Blackhawk golf-course community east of Danville, and he owned the Seattle Seahawks from 1988 to 1998. He was worth $495 million in 1998, according to Forbes magazine's tally of America's wealthiest.

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