Former Mayor Paul Bernhardt dies at 87

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Paul Bernhardt had an incredible knack for promotions, store displays and knowing what customers wanted. Back in the day, when he regularly entered national contests for these things, he won four new cars and numerous trips to exotic destinations.
But the godfather of Salisbury merchants won something more important over his almost seven decades in the hardware business — friends and loyal customers who considered him one of the most compassionate men they had ever known.
“He never saw a stray cat, a stray dog or a person down on their luck that he was not kind to or that he would not take in,” said Al Hoffman, one of his longtime friends.
Bernhardt, who also was Salisbury mayor from 1967-71, died late Thursday night after a year or so of declining health. He was still going to his Bernhardt Hardware Co. store on North Main Street and having morning coffee with friends until about 10 days ago.
A brief hospitalization led up to his death at 87.
Sam Post, a family friend, saw him just hours before he died. He remembered a column former Salisbury Post editor Steve Bouser wrote once about Salisbury’s “most this” and “most that.”
“He listed Paul as Salisbury’s most compassionate man,” Post said Friday. “He was. He spent the days taking care of people, beginning with his wife and Paul Jr., and extending out to those with special needs anywhere and everywhere.”
Before Salisbury had a homeless shelter, Bernhardt would leave the truck behind his hardware store unlocked at night in case anyone might want to slip in and keep warmer.
His concerns for the developmentally disabled, the elderly and — as a city council member — efforts to increase diversity and improve race relations led to his receiving numerous lifetime service and man-of-the-year honors.
He was a talented artist and photographer. He loved snow skiing and ice skating. He was passionate about history, with interests ranging from the old Sparks Circus, which wintered in Salisbury, to the mining operations of Gold Hill, where the family had a farm.
Bernhardt’s second-floor office at the store was like a museum, filled with things you could spend a day with, just looking. Post said Bernhardt was a master in the art of conversation, a good Democrat and a former mayor who never stopped coming up with ideas to improve the city.
It was not usual for Bernhardt, back in the day, to have coffee with friends and fellow merchants twice in the same morning, then have lunch with Leon Zimmerman to talk some more.
“Paul was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known,” Zimmerman said. “… People would come to him, constantly asking his advice on things.”
But maybe more than anything, he was an astute, brilliant businessman, whose biggest flaw may have been that he extended credit to anyone, Hoffman said. “His customers came first,” Hoffman added. “If he made any money, fine.”
Winter tales
Bernhardt enjoyed telling the story of how his faith in Salisburians was justified during a winter storm in 2001. The bad weather came in over the weekend, and when a customer called him at home Sunday morning and wondered if he could buy some Ice Melt, Bernhardt agreed to meet him he said he would meet him at the store.
The customer didn’t show up, so Bernhardt stuck a sign on his front door that said, “If you need Ice Melt, take what you need.” He simply asked that customers write their names and how much Ice Melt they had taken on a legal pad attached to a clipboard on the door handle.
When he returned Monday morning, Bernhardt found nine names on the pad, and 18 50-pound bags of Ice Melt were gone. During the week, all nine people came in and paid their bills.
In 1959, Bernhardt — assistant manager of Greer Hardware at the time — was national runner-up as Hardware Retailer of the Year for Brand Name Foundation. In 1960, he won it, and he collected the award in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel grand ballroom in New York City.
His entry that year was an 85-pound, 101-page scrapbook framed in wood with an aluminum door as its cover. He spent more than 200 hours filling it with his store’s advertisements, color photographs and promotional items.
Thousands of retailers in the country competed for the award, which interestingly was only a plaque, not a new car or a trip abroad.
In 1981, for example, Bernhardt won a national display contest sponsored by Bissell Carpet Sweepers and Rug Cleaners. The prize was a trip for two to Hawaii.
Besides the four cars, Bernhardt also won trips to places such as Spain, Paris, London, Rome, Mexico and the Caribbean — all because he had a way with displays.
He also had a way with Christmas. Bernhardt spent months building new Christmas store displays and toylands. He brought in an organ and had his own snow-making machine. He always was ready for winter, stockpiling sleds and other winter necessities for the season’s first snow and ice.
“He was a bad weather person,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody could promote sleds like he could.”
A place for all supplies
Before the big-box home improvement stores arrived on the scene, hardware stores such as Bernhardt’s were the place for lawn and garden supplies, paints, nails, heaters, bicycles, birdhouses, mowers and most everything you can imagine.
If you needed one nail or a single key made, Bernhardt would sell it to you. No spring in Salisbury was complete without tomato plants for sale on the sidewalk outside his store.
“He was my mentor, my best friend,” said R.C. Kesler, who worked for Bernhardt for some 33 years. “He was always worried about other people before himself. … He had a bunch of misfits, and he looked after all of us.”
Kesler said he and his boss could lock horns on occasion, and Paul’s daughter, Eva Bingham, sometimes had to step in to serve as mediator. But usually Bernhardt was right, Kesler said. He knew what would sell and what wouldn’t.
“I just wished I would have listened to him a whole lot earlier,” Kesler said. “He had a lot to tell and a lot to teach.”
Betty Dan Spencer, a first cousin of Bernhardt, said he taught her a lot about “loss leaders” for a store she once owned in Fayetteville. Loss leaders are items sold at cost or at a loss as a means of bringing customers into the store to purchase other items.
“He was quite innovative,” Spencer said overall of Bernhardt. “I think of him as an encourager. He encouraged people in their endeavors.”
Boyden High grad
Paul Leake Bernhardt graduated from Boyden High School and also attended Georgia Military School, Catawba College and actually earned a professional “hardware degree” from Indiana University.
When she was young, Spencer looked up to him like a big brother and marveled at his artistic talents. As a youngster, Bernhardt also wrote his own “West End” newsletter, complete with illustrations and reporting on items such as engagements and deaths in his West Bank Street neighborhood.
The only time he really left Salisbury for an extended time was during World War II. He served in the Army Air Force in the European Theater. He started in hardware in 1946 at Greer Hardware, where his father, Leake, had been manager since its opening in 1928. Paul became assistant manager.
Greer liquidated its store in 1961, and Bernhardt Hardware took its place.
By 1959, Bernhardt ran for Salisbury City Council and won his first time out, becoming the youngest council member in its history at age 34. He would serve 12 years — the last four as mayor.
He said once that he thought the mayor’s job was the most rewarding in government because you have to be involved every day with the electorate. After leaving the job, he said he was particularly proud of three things: a new street-paving program in low-income neighborhoods; progress in providing public, low-rent housing; and producing a city government more inclusive to women and minorities.
He was a friend of onetime Gov. Terry Sanford and U.S. Rep. Bill Hefner, who stopped at the hardware store on most of his visits to Salisbury.
Over the years, Bernhardt would be chairman of the Rowan Vocational Workshop, president of Salisbury-Rowan Merchants Association, a member of the N.C. Small Business Advisory Committee and an N.C. delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business.
He belonged to the Rotary Club, St. John’s Lutheran and the Circus Historical Society. He gave countless programs over the years on the Sparks Circus.
Back when the circus came to Salisbury, Bernhardt would persuade Hoffman to join him at Bill’s Bakery about 2:30 in the morning for breakfast. They would then go to where the circus was setting up and spend the rest of the morning — until their stores opened — watching the big tent go up.
Hoffman, the man behind Hardiman Furniture, said his friend was quite a storyteller, but the tales could take a long time to develop, because he was always giving history as context.
“I’d keep saying, ‘Paul, what is it you want to tell me?’ ”
In 2002, Bernhardt was named a N.C. Main Street Champion. In 1991, he served as grand marshal of the Holiday Caravan, the annual Christmas parade which he helped to establish. He served on many boards and foundations and received the N.C. Order of the Long Leaf Pine citation, the state’s highest civilian honor.
“He was a wonderful friend,” Charles Goldman said. “He would do anything for you and his customers.”
Bernhardt was devoted to his wife, Naomi, who died in a November 2010 car accident.
A visitation will be held Monday evening at Summersett Funeral Home, and Bernhardt’s funeral is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at St. John’s Lutheran Church.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@