Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Berkeley has been variously described as "Rodeo Drive for intellectuals," "a place where even the dogs have their preferred coffee drinks," and "a small town that thinks it's the center of the universe."
It has produced such colorful personalities as pioneering police chief August Vollmer (the man who made fingerprinting an investigative tool), baseball scrapper Billy Martin, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, poker-faced tennis champ Helen Wills Moody, novelist C.S. Forrester (creator of Captain Horatio Hornblower), physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb), and supermodel/actress Rebecca Romijn, who, after she hit it big, gave a huge donation to her old middle school, Martin Luther King.
But for my money, the most important people in the city's history are two men whose birthdays occurred this month.
The first is the man without whom Berkeley literally would not be Berkeley - George Berkeley, an Anglo-Irish bishop who would have celebrated his 327th birthday on March 12. He's the guy the town is named after.
It happened in 1866, when UC President Henry Durant and members of the Board of Regents, including California Attorney General Frederick Billings, were enjoying a picnic at Founders Rock.
Today, you can barely find Founders Rock because of all the tall buildings around it. But back then it had a gorgeous view of San Francisco Bay.
As they watched the ships sailing through the Golden Gate, Billings was inspired to quote poetry: "Westward the course of empire takes its way."
"Who wrote that?" someone asked.
"Why, George Berkeley, the Bishop of Cloyne," said Billings. "That's it! Berkeley! We'll name the town Berkeley!"
And the rest is history.
The other man is Joseph Charles, who would have celebrated his 102nd birthday on Thursday.
If you drove by the corner of Oregon and Martin Luther King Thursday morning, you probably saw a bunch of people waving at you and shouting, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"
It was a tribute to Mr. Charles, who did that every morning from 1962 to 1992.
In the process, he became the most beloved man in town. People would drive for miles out of their way, just so they start off their day waving to the Waving Man.
Mr. Charles died in 2002 at age 92. But the people of Berkeley refused to let him be forgotten.
Since 2006, people have stood on the corner in front of his house on his birthday and waving to the morning traffic, just as he did.
He even has a Facebook page, "Friends of the Berkeley Waving Man."
One of the wavers is Denisha DeLane, who remembers waving to Mr. Charles when she was a little girl every Sunday morning on her way to church.
"We're going to pass on a great Berkeley tradition to the next generation," she vows.
Of course, when he first started waving, not everyone was so enthusiastic. The neighbors thought he was crazy and called the cops.
But the police quickly sized up the situation and said, "Go ahead, Mr. Charles. You just keep on waving for as long as you want."
And he did.
If you missed Thursday's celebration, don't worry. They'll be back again next March 22, and they invite you to wave to them - or even join them on the corner.
Until then, keep smiling. And have a GOOD day.