Shinn column — ‘PB’ was fixture downtown

Published 2:56 am Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When I began work as a secretary at St. John’s, I received a curious call one morning. The gentleman on the other end wanted to know if Sandra was running the vacuum, and if the babies in the nursery were crying.

Curious indeed.

When I mentioned the call to Oscho Rufty, our facilities manager, he said, “Oh, that’s just PB. Just answer his questions.”

PB, I soon learned, was Paul Bernhardt Jr., the son of longtime members Paul and Naomi Bernhardt. PB would today be called a person with special needs. Of course, that term wasn’t coined when he was born on Nov. 22, 1953. He died Oct. 10, and we laid him to rest Monday at Chestnut Hill, beside his parents.

His sister, Eva Bingham, greeted a large contingent of friends afterward.

Pastor David Nelson said that just as there was a room in heaven for PB, there was always a place for him here in Salisbury. His parents made sure of that. The Bernhardts mainstreamed PB before that term came into vogue, and over the years, PB made lots of friends.

As children, PB and Oscho were in Sunday School together.

“He was always a part of everything,” Oscho said Monday. “We knew he had special needs, but we didn’t think anything of it.”

Their relationship was further cemented by the fact that both worked downtown — Oscho at O.O. Rufty’s, and PB at Bernhardt Hardware. Oscho was always popping into the hardware store for something.

He and other downtown merchants met regularly for morning coffee.

“The old-time merchants, we were basically family,” Oscho said.

That family included PB.

PB’s favorite thing to do at the store was vacuum, and for years, he got a new vacuum cleaner each Christmas — thus his question as to whether Sandra was running the vacuum.

If he was particularly chatty, PB would ask which vacuum Sandra was using. Oh yeah, he knew which was which.

You never went “off script” with PB when he called, but one day, I just couldn’t help it when he asked who was preaching that Sunday. Our senior pastor must’ve been out of town, because I said, “You know, PB, Oscho may have to preach!”

I was rewarded with a rich belly laugh on the other end of the line.

Robert Jones got calls at Rowan Public Library, too.

“Our family goes real far back with the Bernhardts,” Robert said Monday. “PB called us all the time. He knew everybody in our family. He knew all of our animals by name and would ask what the animals were doing.”

Robert’s brother Sid worked at Bernhardt’s as a high-school student. PB referred to Sid’s wife as “Sid’s babe.”

“PB would call us quite often during the course of the day,” Robert said. “He was real bright. He remembered numbers. He remembered everybody in our family. The Bernhardts did include him in their lives. He wasn’t pushed to the side. Everybody knew PB. He was a real sweet man.”

Before there were Walmart greeters, PB was Bernhardt’s greeter, Mayor Paul Woodson said Monday. The two were distant cousins, and the mayor always spoke to PB when he entered the back door several times a week.

“He’d recognize your voice and the way you walked, the way the floor squeaked,” Paul said. “He was kind of a legend around here.”

When Rowan Museum moved to its current site on North Main Street, Executive Director Kaye Brown Hirst said, “I lived at Bernhardt’s. I was in and out of there every day.”

She never went in that she didn’t speak to PB.

“He was just always happy,” she said Monday. “He was a wonderful, bright fixture there.”

F&M’s Paul Fisher was a longtime customer of Bernhardt’s.

“I often went in the back door and I always enjoyed that relationship with PB,” Fisher said Monday. “Paul would bring him to the bank, and our employees looked forward to seeing him and giving him special attention.”

He added, “I had tremendous respect for PB’s mother and dad, for taking care of him in the most beautiful way. They chose to mainstream PB all his life, and I think that was a wise decision. When somebody comes into the world carrying everything PB was carrying, it’s a burden. But PB shouldered his burden as well as anybody.”

Just like Bernhardt’s Hardware, his friends all agree, PB was also a downtown fixture.

And you can bet right now he’s vacuuming to his heart’s content.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.