The yellow gloves came out Thursday morning at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Oregon, as did the smiles and “have a good day” cheers.
For the group of 10 and the countless commuters honking at them during the two hours of commute time, the waving and the cheering meant only one thing: remembering Mr. Charles on his 97th birthday.
“I have a new found respect for him and his ability to be here from 7:30 to 9 a.m. everyday,” said Denisha DeLane, who organized the event. “Mr. Charles is like the Michael Jordan of waving. He kept retiring but he kept coming back. And there’s no way we are going to forget him.”
Mr. Charles, or Berkeley’s “Waving Man” as he was widely known, first waved to his neighbor in 1962. That little gesture went on to become something of a daily ritual, not just for him but for hundreds of school kids and people on their way to work. When Mr. Charles put on his big yellow gloves and waved, people waved back and smiled. Mr. Charles kept waving until he died in 2002.
“His was the only smile I had for the longest time,” said Mark Lence, a neighbor. “I was going through a difficult time for a while and he would be out here, in his big boots and gloves, cleaning his car and cheering me up with his smile.”
Kathryn Kaiser, who lives in Mr. Charles’ house now, was arranging doughnuts and muffins on a table for passersby to eat Thursday.
“It’s a privilege to live in his house,” she said. “My children grew up seeing him wave when I lived two blocks down. I think it’s wonderful to keep his memory alive. I hope we do it every year.”
Parents who had been elementary school children 30 years ago brought their kids by Mr. Charles’ house at 2819 Martin Luther King Jr. Way to tell them his amazing story and wave.
Celeste Fikiri, who brought her 4-year-old daughter Kasallah, reminisced about the time when Berkeley had a lot more community events.
“We had carnivals and shows going on all the time when I was in elementary school,” she said. “That doesn’t happen any more now. The gentrification of Berkeley has led to less neighborhood gatherings. It’s as if the districts have boundaries. We need to get more involved.”
There is talk of holding a bigger celebration next year and getting a proclamation from the city.
“It’s about time we got together and did something for him,” said DeLane, as she waved to a lady in a black Volvo who honked twice at her.
“I miss Mr. Charles,” the lady cried out from the car window as she zoomed by.
“We all miss Mr. Charles,” said Sean Dugar, who had come from Oakland to wave. “My most vivid memory of Mr. Charles was in elementary school. Every time we hit this intersection, all the children would crowd into one corner of the bus just to look at him waving. He taught us that the simple act of standing on a corner and smiling can cause a lot of joy.”
Photograph by Riya Battacharjee
Denisha DeLane and Sean Dugar wave to passersby at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Oregon to mark Mr. Charles’ 97th birthday on Thursday.