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Hospice fundraiser packs a 'Ponch'

August 15, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- There was plenty of black leather, chains, tattoos, a spattering of in-your-face T-shirts and a lot of bare skin. Ear plugs would have fit in, too.

It was Bike Night in Martinsburg, an annual event since 2002, when hundreds of motorcyclists roar though the city's streets, blasting straight pipes and showing off enough chrome to shine up the moon.

But it's all for a good cause. Most of the money taken in, usually between $8,000 and $10,000, goes to Hospice of the Panhandle every year.

This year, a special added attraction was actor Erik Estrada, the former start of "CHiPS" from the 1970s, when he played Officer Frank "Ponch" Poncherello of the California Highway Patrol opposite actor Larry Wilcox as his partner, Jon Baker.

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People were lined up outside Estrada's tent, set up at the corner of Queen and Burke streets, to shake hands, smile back at the actor's mouthful of flashing teeth and get an autographed photo showing Estrada as he looked in his California Highway Patrol uniform. He was there for hours, graciously greeting each autograph hunter as though they were old friends. All of the donations he took in went to Hospice.

The event was co-sponsored by Main Street Martinsburg and the Berkeley County Chapter of the West Virginia Blue Knights, a national motorcycle club, most of whose members are police officers.

Of the 60 members in the Berkeley County club, all but a handful are cops. The president is Lt. Ron Gardner of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, who said about 850 motorcycles roared into Martinsburg.

Parked side by side at angles, they lined the sides of Queen Street and the first blocks of Martin, Burke, Race and King streets off Queen Street.

Randy Lewis, executive director of Main Street Martinsburg, estimated the crowd at about 6,000.

"It gets bigger every year," Lewis said.

In addition to Estrada and the motorcycles, patrons enjoyed live music, a beer garden and vendors.

Each motorcyclist donated $10 for the privilege of joining the hour-long ride from Berkeley Plaza across Back Creek Valley. The ride ended in downtown Martinsburg at 6 p.m.

Laura Newberry, community relations representative for Hospice of the Panhandle, was helping run the charity's tent. She praised Bike Night for helping promote the Hospice program.

"A lot of people come to town for this who don't know about Hospice," Newberry said. "Hospice touches nearly everyone at some point in their lives."

Newberry hitched a ride with one of the visiting motorcyclists and made the ride through Back Creek Valley. The owner of a small Honda Rebel, she said she would have been too nervous to ride her motorcycle on the ride.

Gerald Cosner, 63, of Inwood, W.Va., and Frank Mauro, 51, of Falling Waters, W.Va., met for the first time Saturday night.

"We just met and rode on the ride together. We both ride (Harley-Davidson) Sportsters," Maura said. "Mine is a '75 kicker. It's real hard core."

The two exchanged cell phone numbers.

"We'll see each other again," Maura said.

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