Joseph Charles -- Berkeley's 'Waving Man'

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Joseph Charles -- Berkeley's 'Waving Man'

Charles Burress, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, March 15, 2002

 

Old age claimed Berkeley's legendary "Waving Man" yesterday morning.

 

Joseph Charles, 91, was a humble man with a large heart. He won national fame and affection for the simple act of waving to the passing traffic from the front of his house every morning for 30 years.

 

With a smile as bright as the yellow gloves that became his trademark, he often called out a cheerful "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!" to the commute traffic on busy Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

 

Joseph Charles"He has brought a lot of joy to people," Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean said on the occasion of his 85th birthday, when he stepped out of retirement for a brief comeback. She issued a proclamation in his honor.

 

That was the same occasion when the national news digest in USA Today devoted one of its two items from California to Mr. Charles. In 1991, a year before Mr. Charles retired, Chronicle staff writer Carl Nolte called him "one of the Bay Area's best known moving landmarks."

 

In his 25th year of waving, a headline in People magazine proclaimed: "Joseph Charles, Long May He Wave, Spreads Joy in Berkeley."

 

He was featured on national television by Walter Cronkite and Charles Kuralt, among others. A city tennis court was named after him, and his gloves are now housed at the Berkeley History Center.

 

"I love people," he once explained to The Chronicle, "and people showed me they loved me, too."

 

Martin Snapp, a columnist for the Berkeley Voice and Mr. Charles's unofficial historian, called him "the most beloved man in Berkeley."

"He made a lot of people happy," said Snapp, who belonged to a circle of supportive friends, including Alameda County Superior Court Judge Julie Conger, who visited Mr. Charles and sang carols beneath his window every Christmas Eve.

 

Mr. Charles left his hometown of Lake Charles, La., to come to the Bay Area during the African American migration, drawn by work in the shipyards during World War II, according to Snapp. He worked at the Oakland Naval Supply Center from 1942 to 1971.

 

As a young man, he won acclaim as a talented first baseman for the Lake Charles Black Yankees, part of the negro leagues. He claimed he was once struck out by Satchel Paige.

 

Mr. Charles outlived his wife and two children, as well as two personal physicians. He is survived by six grandchildren.

 

Joseph Charles, 91, a Symbol Of Street Corner Friendliness

By Douglas Martin New York Times March 20, 2002

 

Joseph Charles, who became famous by being very, very friendly, died on Thursday in Oakland, Calif. He was 91.

 

Every weekday morning for three decades, Mr. Charles stood on a street corner in adjacent Berkeley and waved to each passing motorist. It made him a local legend, indeed, something of a national wonder, and attracted coverage from Charles Kuralt and People magazine.

 

On the morning of Oct. 6, 1962, Mr. Charles stepped out of his newly purchased white clapboard house in Berkeley and waved to neighbors down the block. They waved back. The waving quickly became a ritual.

 

Inspired, he began waving at cars that passed the intersection of Oregon and Grove Streets.

 

''At first,'' Mr. Charles said, ''people thought I was crazy. They called me a Communist and said I would cause a wreck.''

 

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But one person waved back, then another and then another. Some honked. A motorist gave him a pair of yellow gloves, and they became his trademark. He eventually owned 20 pairs, one of which is in a local museum.

 

He estimated that each day he waved to at least 4,500 people, nearly 1.2 million a year. When his right arm grew tired, he used his left.

 

''Keep smiling!'' Mr. Charles shouted endlessly. ''Have a good day!''

 

Of course, there was more to his life than waving. He did just that from 7:45 to 9:30 a.m. rain or shine.

 

He was born and raised in Lake Charles, La., and moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the 40's to work in the shipyards. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Flora Shade, who died in 1982. His sole survivor is a grandson.

 

Mr. Charles worked at the Oakland Naval Supply Center from 1942 until 1971. As a young man, he played for the Lake Charles Black Yankees, part of the Negro Leagues. He loved to tell the story about batting against Satchel Paige, the immortal pitcher. He struck out, but got a foul tip.

 

He stopped waving in 1992, on his 30th anniversary at the corner of what had become Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. For the last few years, he had been waving from his window.

 

''I go to bed thinking about waving,'' Mr. Charles said in an interview with CBS News. ''I get up thinking about waving. But now I don't want to get up. That's the whole thing in a nutshell.''

 

Happy birthday Mr. Charles

 

Berkeley Voice March 17, 2000 By Martin  Snapp


This Wednesday, March 22, will be a landmark in the life of one of Berkeley's most beloved citizens: The Waving Man will turn 90 years old.joseph Charles

That's just one of the names he's known by. Some call him "Mr. Good day," after his trademark greeting, "Have a good day!


Some call him "Mr. Smiles," after his other greeting, "Keep Smiling!"

Some call him "Charley Wavesalot." But his real name is Joseph W Charles, and for exactly 30 years - from
Oct. 6, 1962, to Oct. 6, 1992 - he stood in front of his home at the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley every morning and waved to the passing cars.


In the process, he became a legend. People from all over the East Bay would go of their way to drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Way, just so they could wave to The Waving Man. Those who were little kids when he first started waving grew up and drove their kids by his house, so they could enjoy the experience, too.

"Enjoy" is the operative word. You couldn’t help breaking out in a grin when you saw The Waving Man, waving and pointing and calling out, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"

"I've been doing it since 1979," says his friend and neighbor, Judge Julie Conger. Even when my son, Zak, was only 1 year old, he used to stand up and  roll his arms, just the way Mr. Charles does.

"Another time, my daughter, Dylan, turned to me and said, 'Mommy, it's like having a blessing bestowed on us every day we drive by."'

Mr. Charles was born March 22, 19l0, in Lake Charles, L,a. In his youth, he was a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues. He was the hard-hitting first baseman for the Lake Charles Black Yankees.

He saw all the greats: catcher Josh Gibson, who Mr. Charles says could throw a runner out at second without getting out of a crouch; first baseman Buck O'Neil, the star of Ken Burns' "Baseball" series; and outfielder James "Cool Papa" Bell, who, according to Mr. Charles, "was so fast, he could flip off the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark."

One day in 1928, the great Satchel Paige himself came barnstorming through town with a pickup team of stars from the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Kansas City Monarchs.

Mr. Charles went up to bat against the great man three times. He fouled off the first pitch, then Paige struck him out with the next three. The next two at bats, it was l-2-3 and out.

So was Mr. Charles disappointed?

"Heck no!" he says. "I'm proud to have gotten a foul tip off him. That's better than most people did!"

In 1942, Mr. Charles moved to the Bay Area to find work in Oakland's booming defense industry. He got a job as a packer at the Oakland Naval Supply Center, where he remained until his retirement in 1971.

In October 1962, he and his wife, Flora, moved into their Berkeley house.

 "I was raking leaves in the side yard, and one of my neighbors- a Filipino man- waved to me," he recalls. "So I waved back. The next day, he waved to me again. And I waved again.

“On the third day he came to me and said he was moving back to the Philippines. But I enjoyed waving so much, I didn't want to quit!  So I decided to move to the front yard and wave to everyone."

Not everyone took to it at first.  "I had just started waving when a woman from our church called my wife and said, 'Flora, do you know what that fool of a husband of yours is doing? He's outside your house, waving to strangers!" 'he says.

"So my wife leaned out of the window and yelled, Joseph, come on in here! You must be crazy!"'

She remained skeptical for several years. But then the media picked up on the story. Mr. Charles was pro filed on "Real People," “The NBC Nightly News," "The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," and "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."

"After that," he says, "she decided that maybe what I was doing wasn't so crazy after all."

The neighbors took a little more convincing. The first day he waved to traffic, the neighbors assumed he was crazy and called the cops. When the police arrived, they took one look and started laughing. They said, “Go ahead, Mr. Charles. You just keep on waving!" That sentiment has been echoed by three generations of Berkeleyans.

Flora died in 1982. Since then, Mr. Charles has lived alone in their house, which he has turned into a shrine to her. The place is always immaculate. “Just the way she would have wanted it," he explains. And the dining room table is always set with her favorite flatware, crystal and china.

Pictures of Flora cover every wall, along with those of their two sons, Stanford and Joseph Jr., who have also died, and their six grandchildren, who are devoted to their grandfather. And, of course, he also serves as surrogate grandfather to all the children
in the neighborhood.

"My 2-year-old is always over there, playing in his front yard," says one neighbor. "I can't think of a better more kindly influence to have in my child's life."

Not all of his admirers come from the immediate neighborhood. He regularly gets fan mail from England, Australia and, especially, Germany. "Dear Waving Man," reads one from Gummersbach, Germany, "you make me feel good."

"To my Berkeley Waving Man, who is cheering me up every day. When I was an exchange student at Cal," reads another from Meckenheim, Germany, "I love you."

In 1987, to celebrate Mr. Charles' 25th anniversary then-Mayor Loni Hancock wanted to have a plaque put in the pavement on the spot where he always stands. But the Pubiic Works Department vetoed the idea, saying it would cost too much money. So they compromised and named the tennis courts across the street in his honor. You can see the sign as you drive by: 'Joseph W. Charles Tennis Courts."

Not that he's a big tennis buff, of course, but the idea was that at least he'd be able to see it every day when he looks out his window.

An even better tribute came in 1992, when a stranger knocked on Mr. Charles' front door and said, "You don't know me, but my wife and I have been having a lot of problems and we're thinking of getting a divorce. But after driving by your house every day and seeing your positive outlook on life, we've decided to give it another try."

"The nicest part," says Mr. Charles, "is that a few days later, the wife came by and told me the same thing."

A few years ago, this writer did a few calculations and estimated that Mr. Charles waved to an average of 1,800 cars every day.
 
Multiply that by 261 weekdays every year. He never waved on weekends. Multiply that by 30 years, and it turns out he has waved a staggering 14,058,000 times in his career.

Ever since his retirement from waving in 1992, people have been trying to repay a little bit of the love that he has lavished so generously on us. He has been the Grand Marshall of both the Solano Stroll and the How Berkeley Can You Be Parade.

And every Christmas, his friends and admirers gather outside his living room window to serenade him with Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and, Yuletide carols.

And on his birthday this Wednesday, about 45 of his friends and family will gather at his favorite restaurant, Kinkaid's at Jack London Square, to help him celebrate the big day.

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