Sunday, March 14, 2010
Remembering the Waving Man
Even if Joseph Charles had done nothing after he retired, he still would have led a full life.
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1910, he played in the Negro Leagues as a young man, managing and playing second base for the Lake Charles Black Yankees.
Once, he even batted against Satchel Paige when the great pitcher came through town on a barnstorming tour. He struck out on three straight pitches.
"But I got a foul tip," he told me proudly, "which was better than anyone else did that day."
In 1942 he joined the great African American migration from the deep South to the Bay Area, where he built Liberty ships at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond. After World War II he worked as a longshoreman at the Oakland Naval Supply Center until his retirement in 1962.
And that's when his legend began. On the morning of Oct. 6, 1962, he stood outside his home on the corner of Oregon Street and Grove Street (now called Martin Luther King Way) and waved to the passing cars.
Some of his neighbors thought he was crazy and called the cops. But when the police arrived, they took one look and said, "Go ahead, Mr. Charles. You just keep on waving for as long as you want."
So he did - every morning, rain or shine, for exactly 30 years until he finally retired from waving on Oct. 6, 1992.
In the process, he became beloved.
"He was a Berkeley legend and a local treasure," said former mayor Shirley Dean. "He brought a smile to everyone who knew him."
Another former mayor, state Sen. Loni Hancock, concurred. "He was a joyful person who loved people, and they loved him right back. Seeing him every morning was a great way to start the day."
But his fans weren't confined to Berkeley. People in Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito and Richmond would drive miles out of their way, just so they could start their day by waving to The Waving Man.
That was just one of the names he was known by. Some called him Mr. Smiles, after one of his trademark greetings, "Keep smiling!"
Others called him Mr. Goodday, after his other greeting, "Have a GOOD day!" Still others called him Charley Wavesalot.
The City of Berkeley issued proclamations honoring him no fewer than seven times during his lifetime. In 1987 the tennis courts across the street from his house were re-christened the "Joseph W. Charles Tennis Courts." (Not that he was a big tennis fan, but at least he could look at the sign every day from his front window.)
Mr. Charles died in 2002, a few days short of his 92nd birthday. He outlived his wife, his children, and two of his doctors. But not his fame, which will endure forever.
Last month, a few of his admirers started a Facebook fan page for him, and within a couple of days it had more than 500 members.
Next Monday, March 22, would have been his 100th birthday, and some of his fans will celebrate by standing in front of his old house at the corner of Oregon and Martin Luther King and waving to the morning traffic.
I'll be one of them, and I hope you'll drive by and wave to us.
Until then, keep smiling. And have a GOOD day.