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A ‘Belle’ of a surprise: Koco Java bunch presents falconer Bernhardt with special painting

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Glenn Ketner became the instigator, the Koco Java “back-table bunch” put up the funding, artist Keyth Kahrs provided the goods, and Cindy Bernhardt — well, she had no clue.

Ketner and the midafternoon regulars at Koco Java called Bernhardt over to their table Friday for a special presentation. Ketner gave some back story as he asked Bernhardt and Kahrs to stand with him before the unveiling.

Soon, out from a sleeve of brown wrapping paper came a painting Kahrs had done of Belle, a cherished red-tailed hawk Bernhardt had cared for and hunted small game with for almost three years.

The pair’s hunting partnership became a cover story for the past winter’s edition of Salisbury the Magazine.

On an emotional day in May, Bernhardt released Belle back into the wild, confident she could survive and hunt on her own. But it was a tough goodbye.

Holding Kahrs’ painting of Belle in her hands and hearing how everyone around the “back-table bunch” had chipped in to buy the piece brought some tears again.

“I never expected this,” Bernhardt said. “Oh, my goodness. This is awesome. … I get Belle forever now.”

She turned to Kahrs, who had gone on a hunt with Bernhardt some time back and later painted Belle from a photograph he had taken that day.

“Let’s hold it together,” a tearful Bernhardt said. “I’m afraid I’m going to drop it.”

Later, as the group of mostly men broke up to go home, Bernhardt hugged each of them.

They included Ketner, Tommy Eaton, Mike Jacobsen, John Riley, Terry Osborne, Ralph Shatterly, Gus Andrews, Carla Foster, Randy Mowery, W.A. Cline and Charles Riley, John’s son who had evacuated from Charleston, South Carolina, in front of Hurricane Dorian.

The group, which fluctuates daily in number, often includes Gordon Hurley, too.

Cindy also is a regular at Koco Java in the afternoons, dropping in after finishing her job as a first-grade assistant at West Rowan Elementary School.

The back-table bunch started out at the old Port City Java coffee shop on West Innes Street, and Bernhardt remembers Eaton and the late Red Beck being at the heart of the group.

Beck was one of her neighbors once, Bernhardt said. So was Eaton. Jacobsen is a neighbor now, and Shatterly was one of her teachers in high school.

“They just got together and talked baseball and other things,” Bernhardt said, “but having been neighbors with so many of them, they invited me into their group. So 10-plus years ago, three or four times every week, I would sit down and talk with all of those men, whether it was two or eight of them.”

Ketner, whose law office is behind Koco Java, became part of the group when it moved here several years ago.

“Many of them, even after Red passed away, welcomed me into the group and asked questions about Belle and falconry and made sure that if I was sitting there they weren’t just talking about sports and included me in the conversation,” Bernhardt says.

She found Ketner especially interested in falconry and even went to his house and gave a demonstration for his grandchildren. She often gives instructional talks with fellow falconer Bob Pendergrass.

Whenever Ketner saw Bernhardt, he asked about Belle, and Eaton “always told me he was praying for her when she was sick,” Bernhardt says.

“So they truly are a special group of people to me,” she adds.

Ketner knew of Kahrs’ painting of Belle, which the artist had entered in juried shows. Recently, as they exited from a “‘Bury Home Companion” performance, Ketner asked Kahrs what he might be asking for the painting.

The bottom line: Kahrs came down a couple of hundred dollars on his price, everybody in the back-table bunch chipped in, and the stage was set for Friday’s presentation.

There’s one more note to this story: Five days after she released Belle on a farm about a mile-and-a-half from West Rowan Elementary School, Bernhardt looked skyward from the playground and spied the hawk.

Bernhardt would know Belle anywhere. She appeared to be missing two wing feathers and was being pestered by a crow, as crows are wont to do.

“When I called her name, she started circling,” Bernhardt said.

There was more good news the next morning. The farm owner told Bernhardt she had seen Belle holding a full-sized rabbit in her talons.

Bernhardt had taught her well.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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