Decatur gadfly Bernard Ephraim dies; Inventor was perhaps best known as thorn in the side of local government

Decatur gadfly Bernard Ephraim dies; Inventor was perhaps best known as thorn in the side of local government

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DECATUR - Bernard E. "Barney" Ephraim didn't quite make it.

The former owner of Decatur Instrument Co. died Friday at age 98. He always swore he would live to be 100.

But that assertion was typical of Ephraim, a man who made his money in Chicago designing security systems to thwart retail theft before relocating to Forsyth in the early 1970s. He opened the Decatur Instrument Co. about 1976 as successor to Jenco Musical Products and made various types of percussion instruments, as well as continuing to devise security paraphernalia.

Ephraim's claim to business fame was his design for a tag that could be affixed to clothing. The tag would set off an alarm if a shoplifter tried to walk out of a store without paying for an item.

In a 1986 interview, Ephraim said, "Any company with 10 or more stores in the United States either has our alarms in them now or has had at some time."

His reputation in Decatur was as a caustic critic of local government, the city of Decatur in particular.

Ephraim enjoyed publicity and wasn't afraid to spend money to put his name in front of the public, particularly with a series of newspaper ads in the 1980s that criticized state and local governments as tax spendthrifts.

He may be remembered best for financing shuttle buses to take Christmas shoppers from downtown Decatur to the Hickory Point Mall from 1982 to 1985 after city officials, under pressure from downtown businesspeople, declined to act on his suggestion to provide public transit service to Forsyth.

In 1986, he chartered buses to take shoppers from Decatur to Springfield's White Oaks Mall. About 4,000 people took advantage of the service.

Terry Hoyt was Ephraim's personal assistant for more than 15 years.

"I was his friend and caretaker," Hoyt said Monday. "I took care of him seven days a week until late March. A lot of people saw the bad side of him. He was so smart until the end" when he had dementia and was placed in a nursing home.

Ephraim donated equipment, dies and a customer list from Decatur Instrument Co. to the state for use by prison industries at the Decatur Correctional Center when the women's prison opened, Hoyt said. But the equipment was never used, she said.

"He had a heart of gold," Hoyt said. "When my grandson died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, I took some time off to be with my daughter. Barney drove up to her house and honked his horn. When we went out, he was sitting in the car crying. He gave her $100."

Ron Ingram can be reached at ringram@;herald-review.com or 421-7973.

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