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Ralph Johannessen, 88, of Medford, has been feeding the birds outside the Shari’s Restaurant on East Stewart Avenue since it moved to the location. Saturday the restaurant dedicated a birdbath to him Alisha Jucevic / Mail Tribune photo - Alisha Jucevic

A lasting tribute for Shari's 'Bird Man'

The birds clustered around the garden at the south Medford Shari's never had it so good before Ralph Johannessen showed up three years ago.

Ralph and his wife, Lena, had a daily routine on their way to breakfast. She'd drop him off on the restaurant's west flank and then park their car. He, bag of birdseed in hand, scattered morning rations for pigeons, starlings, juncos and other avian visitors populating the surrounding trees and neighboring rooftops before meeting her for a breakfast of poached eggs, hash browns and quiche.

A few weeks ago, Ralph was diagnosed with liver and prostate cancer and is rapidly deteriorating.

Staff members at Shari's bought a birdbath in honor of their ailing customer and dedicated it Saturday morning to "Ralph the Bird Man."

"We remember our customers' names by occupations and what they eat, but Ralph is known for feeding the birds," said longtime Shari's waitress Debbie Smallwood. "I'm so glad he was able to see it, we've tried to make him feel special."

The Johannessens came in for lunch the other day and the birds put on a show for their benefactor.

"All of the sudden five or six birds were in the water, flapping their wings and he was just smiling," Smallwood said.

With his faithful fowl pecking at nearby feed, the former contractor and paint salesman soaked up the moment from his wheelchair beneath a shade tree.

"It's a joy to see something like this happen," Johannessen said.

The Johannessens have several birdbaths, attracting a variety of finches and other species, at home. They lived in Gresham before moving here to be closer to their son Robert.

While they were up north, they began buying bags of day-old bread from Franz and feeding birds in the K-Mart parking lot.

"We would get as far away from cars as we could and throw the bread on the ground," recalled Lena Johannessen. "There were probably 300 of them; they knew what our car looked like and started gathering around when we drove up."

They continued their tradition, albeit on a smaller scale, when they arrived in the Rogue Valley.

"We remember certain guests by what they order or different things," said Shari's general manager Mike West. "This was something unusual."

People are creatures of habit, Smallwood said, and when she started seeing the Johannessens less often she was concerned and instigated a customer-appreciation project. Co-worker Beckie Dynell tracked down the birdbath, Carol Durham had the plaque made.

"When Ralph saw the birdbath, it was wonderful," Smallwood said. "He always fed them, and now they have water, too."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

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