I read in our local paper that Leland F. Campbell died at the age of 87. I’m sure his name means nothing to most of you, but in our little community, he’d made himself something of a landmark. Each morning, he parked his motorized scooter alongside a busy thoroughfare and waved to passing cars. He was dubbed “The Sierra Street Waver.”
Although Sierra Street is not on my morning commute, I became acquainted with Campbell a couple of years ago when my dog and I took an alternate route during our a.m. walk.
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” He called out to me as he waved at a passing car.
I slowed my steps, wondering if he’d wandered off from somewhere and was in need of help.
“A bit chilly, don’t you think?” I asked. I could see my breath and both our faces were red from the cold. Two more cars passed by, and as he waved they honked their horns.
“Oh, a little,” he said, his eyes never leaving the road. “But I try to be here every morning no matter what.” A minivan slowed and the driver smiled broadly as she wiggled her fingers at us.
“You’re here every morning?” I asked, but before he could respond, a carload of teenage boys rounded the corner, their music pounding a hard bass beat. I braced myself as they lowered their windows–an elderly man sitting on the side of the street was an easy target–but to my surprise, they grinned and shouted, “Have a good day!” The Sierra Street Waver chuckled.
“Every morning,” he said. “When my health allows.”
I walked on, warmed by the small-town kindness extended to a lonely, elderly eccentric parked on the side of the street. How good we are to indulge him in his quirky morning habit, I thought smugly.
But upon learning more about Campbell, I realized that not only had I misjudged him, but I had badly misinterpreted the intent and effect of his waving mission. I’d been mistaken about who was helping whom.
Campbell, as his obituary noted, was a veteran of three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. It dawned on me that he probably saw more of the underbelly of human nature than most of us will in our lifetimes. Yet, here he was each morning, offering a heartfelt greeting to passing commuters. You couldn’t pay me to sit on the side of the road and wave to passersby, but perhaps Campbell’s military experience left him with a special understanding of how crucial it is to narrow the degree of separation between strangers. Had he made it his final mission to extend friendliness and openness to others without exception or expectation?
If so, Campbell fulfilled his duty well, and was honored for his contribution. Students often stopped by with gifts of hot chocolate and donuts for Campbell. People expressed concern if he was not at his post. Friends have told me that seeing Campbell each morning was the bright spot in their day. A reminder to smile. An opportunity to connect. A few years back, Campbell was chosen as Grand Marshall for the annual Christmas Parade. Our City Council recently honored him as “Citizen of the Quarter.”
All because he waved.
It is easy to think that meaningful results only come from grand, complicated gestures. That not much can be accomplished by one person acting alone, especially an elderly gentleman near the end of his life. But as Campbell so clearly demonstrated, even the smallest acts are significant when our intent is to reach out to another human being. There is much that can be accomplished in the simplest gestures. Just ask those who are missing the presence of Leland F. Campbell on their morning commute.