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‘Waving Man’of Berkeley dies at 91

By Michelle Locke, The Associated Press
Saturday March 16, 2002

Joseph W. Charles, a gentle spirit who brightened the commute of millions of motorists, has died at age 91. 

For 30 years, Charles spent weekday mornings standing on a busy Berkeley street corner to wave a cheerful hello to passing cars — a practice that earned him the name “Waving Man.” He died Thursday of heart failure at an Oakland hospital. 

By the time he retired in 1992, for health reasons, Charles had been featured in newspaper and television reports worldwide. For a city better known for making political waves, the charming and unassuming Charles was a beacon of goodwill. 

“He was the heart of Berkeley,” said Julie Conger, an Alameda County Superior Court judge and longtime friend. “He was just a wonderful, wonderful man.” 

Charles began his routine in 1962, a custom that started informally with a casual wave to a neighbor. 

At first, he said he got some stares and his wife wanted to know “if I was crazy.” But, gradually, his cheerful waves and benediction “You keep smiling” became a staple of the morning drive. 

In 1971, Charles retired from his regular job at the Oakland Naval Supply Center, but he still rose each day at 6:30 a.m. to take up his post on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Back then he would “go to bed thinking about my waving and wake up thinking about my waving,” he said in a 1992 interview with The Associated Press. 

Over the next three decades, the traffic got thicker and the commute more tense, but still Charles waved. 

“People not just in Berkeley but from all over would drive miles out of their way just so they could drive by the waving man,” said Martin Snapp, a columnist for the Berkeley Voice and a friend of Charles. 

“My daughter turned to me when she was about 12 or 13 and she said, ’You know, Mom, every time you drive by Mr. Charles, it’s like getting a blessing,”’ Conger recalled. “And that’s exactly what he was to so many people. It was like starting your day with a blessing.” 

After a fan presented Charles with a pair of bright yellow gloves, his waves got even easier to spot. Those gloves are now in the Berkeley Historical Society Museum. 

“He’s a legend,” said Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean. “He always had this wonderful kind of sparkle about him.” 

Although he became a Berkeley landmark, Charles wasn’t a native Californian. He was born in Lake Charles, La., and moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the 1940s, part of the migration of southern blacks in search of work in the booming shipyards of World War II. 

As a young man, Charles played baseball in the Negro Leagues and often talked of once facing the great Satchel Paige. 

“He struck out but he got a foul tip,” Snapp said. “He was very proud of that foul tip.” 

Charles’ wife died several years ago, and his two children also are dead. He is survived by a grandson, Robert Charles, of Oakland. 

Charles’ legacy, said his friends, will be his smile, his wave and his often-repeated exhortation to “Have a GOOD day!” 

“He loved people,” said Snapp, “and that was his way of doing it.”