Family and fans of Joseph Charles, who was known as the Waving Man, carried on his legacy Thursday, March 22, in South Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For 30 years, Joseph Charles was a fixture on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Oregon Street, where he would stand waving at people who walked and drove by each morning. Thursday, on what would have been his 108th birthday, three generations of Charles’s family members, along with other fans, came out to carry on his practice.

They wore the Waving Man’s trademark yellow gloves and called out his catchphrase: “Keep smiling and have a good day!”

The Berkeley Parks Department organized the gathering to rededicate the Grove Park tennis courts to Charles, who lived across the street. The courts, named after the Waving Man several years ago, were recently renovated and outfitted with a new sign honoring Charles, who died in 2002. He is memorialized in a mural on the side of the Ashby Super Market, as well, and his gloves are stored at the Berkeley Historical Society.

Charles waved from 1962 to 1992, his ritual surviving many changes in the neighborhood throughout those decades.

Berkeley Parks staffer Wanda Williams said she passed by Charles every weekday morning on the bus in the 1970s, traveling from her home on Fairview Street to Berkeley High. All the passengers would move over to one side of the bus to catch a glimpse of the Waving Man, she said.

“He brought a lot of smiles to a lot people. We’re trying to continue that legacy,” Williams said.

After learning that March 22 was Charles’s birthday from a Berkeleyside article, Williams reached out to his family members on Facebook. Grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other relatives braved the rain to come out and wave Thursday.

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Sherrill Charles, the granddaughter of the Waving Man, also rode the bus to school past her grandfather each morning. She had a slightly different experience than Williams.

Hearing the other kids ask, “Who’s that crazy man?” Sherrill would slump down in her seat, mortified. Leaving her teenage years behind, though, she quickly grew to be in awe of her grandfather’s tradition. She watched him gain national recognition, in People Magazine and on TV with Walter Cronkite.

“It was just a joy to see that people were getting so much out of him,” Sherrill Charles said Thursday. “It became more sentimental as time went on and I like to see that people still want to keep his legacy going.”

Joseph Charles’s family, fans, and city staff pose under a new sign outside the renovated Grove Park tennis courts. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Joseph Charles’s family, fans, and city staff pose under a new sign outside the renovated Grove Park tennis courts. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At the celebratory event, some of the younger family members kept count of the cars and pedestrians who waved back, or honked, as they passed. About an hour in, someone had reached 250.

Parks Department director Scott Ferris gave two of the kids the chance to unveil the new sign themselves, but they couldn’t quite reach the covering, so adults stepped in to help.

Among the small group that showed up to celebrate Charles were City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, who said she drove by the Waving Man many times, as well as the current residents of Charles’s old house.

One of the residents, carrying her 1-year-old child, said even when she tells people outside of Berkeley that she lives in the Waving Man’s house, many know exactly who she’s talking about.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...