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Remembering Mr. Charles, By: Riya Bhattacharjee

Friday March 17, 2006

No need for tears. Joseph Charles wouldn’t have wanted that. He would have wanted you to smile—or wave. And he would have definitely wanted you to cheer. On March 22, members of the Berkeley NAACP Youth & College Division are coming together to celebrate the legacy of Mr. Charles, Berkeley’s “Waving Man.” 

For 30 years Mr. Charles stood on the busy intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Oregon to smile and wave hello to morning commuters. What started off with a casual wave to his neighbor way back in 1962 went on to become a daily custom, not only for Mr. Charles but for hundreds of others who waved back at him on their way to work or school every day. It earned him the title of “Waving Man” and by the time he retired from this daily ritual in 1992, he had been featured in media worldwide and had become the “face of Berkeley.” 

Although Mr. Charles retired from his job at the Oakland Naval Supply Center in 1971, he would be at his usual post at 6:30 a.m. everyday, adding a little cheer to the morning commute on Martin Luther King J. Way. 

The residents of South Berkeley found a way to remember this legend after he passed away in 2002 from heart failure. Eve Cohen came up with the idea of putting a mural in the neighborhood based on the theme “South Berkeley Shine.” Sara Bruckmier, who worked on Mr. Charles’ mural remembers, “He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He generated so much love. I remember seeing him when I was younger and thinking how extraordinary his gesture was. It’s fate that I ended up doing his painting,” she said.  

Bruckmier was so drawn into the project that she visited the Berkeley Historical Society Museum to carry out research on Mr. Charles. Today visitors can find the pair of bright yellow gloves that a fan had given him to use while waving at the museum.  

“I was afraid that people wouldn’t recognize the mural. I started with his smile, thinking that it would inspire me. And this lady passing by asked me if I was painting Mr. Charles. I was delighted. A man like him makes a neighborhood,” Bruckmier said.  

Bruckmier recalls how people would stop by when she was painting the mural to tell stories about Mr. Charles. “He was a sweet loving man with not a bad word to say. I am really inspired by the love that he generated to the neighborhood.” 

On his 96th birthday, Joseph Charles will be remembered once again. “Although a lot of people see his house everyday, they still forget,” said Denisha DeLane, advisor to the youth council of NAACP. “We have so many young people in Berkeley who missed seeing Mr. Charles wave. We want to bring back the memory for them. I had wanted to do this for a long time and I am glad that we finally are. There will never be anyone like Mr. Charles.” 

Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization and its half-million adult and youth members are the premier advocates for civil rights. The Berkeley NAACP youth and college division have decided to celebrate Mr. Charles’ tradition by holding up signs on the intersection of MLK and Oregon and smiling and cheering at passengers as they drive by.  

“I remember him giving so much joy to people,” said DeLane. “I would see him waving everyday on my way to Berkeley High and later King. He wasn’t always in the best of health and some people said he interfered with traffic, but he was a good kind man and he took the time to greet everybody.” 

For many, Mr. Charles was the official welcomer to Berkeley. People from all over would drive out of their way in order to take a look at him. Some would even honk back to acknowledge his smile. As DeLane puts it, “It was a very Berkeley thing. If he was not out there waving, you knew that something was definitely wrong.” 

DeLane feels positively about the event scheduled to be held next Wednesday morning from 7:45 to 9:30 a.m. “I want to see a good group of people. We are telling people to bring along the bright yellow gloves that were Mr. Charles’ trademark. Legacies such as this should be continued. Young people have a lot to learn from this and their support and enthusiasm is just terrific.” 

“There is nothing more powerful than a smile,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “I am planning to attend on Wednesday and I think it is a very appropriate thing to remember Mr. Charles by. By lifting up our hands and cheering we are keeping the tradition alive. Young people can learn so much from this positive action.”›