It’s finally spring. The azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom, the bass and perch are biting, and Michael Knox (better known as the Waving Man) is reliably back at his post.
Knox has been a one-man Welcome Wagon for lake dwellers for 20 years. Sporting his trademark red ball cap and perched on a wooden chair on the porch of his white duplex wedged between the train tracks and North Main Street (Highway 115) overlooking Cornelius Town Hall, he sends passersby on their way with a smile and a friendly wave most days, weather permitting.
A generation of youngsters who grew up waving back on their way to school, Carolina Cones and the YMCA, now detour past his house so their children can do the same. Knox started waving, he explains, to be neighborly.
“That’s just the way I was raised.” Of course, when he started waving, he knew most of the folks who passed by. Knox’s father had 13 siblings, so many of them were relatives of some degree. Except for a stint building bridges and driving dump trucks in Vietnam for the Army in the mid 1960s, Knox has spent all his 65 years within five miles of his current address, so he also knew two or three generations of their families, their in-laws (and outlaws) and could name their ministers, doctors and employers as well.
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He grew up picking cotton on the family farm in the days when the local crop dusting plane landed on Jetton Road, and hunted dove and deer along Sam Furr Road. Before he graduated from North Mecklenburg High School, his family’s house was moved to make way for the lake. After his discharge from the Army, Knox held a succession of jobs before landing one with the Town of Davidson’s Public Works Department in 1970. When the town sold its electric plant to Duke Power, he snagged a job as a lineman, a position he held until nerve damage from a foot injury forced him to give it up in 1992 and he began waving.
Divorced for decades, his only daughter and her family several hours away, he doesn’t spend all his time on the front porch. But he prefers the real world to reality TV and has no use for the Web. “Computer? What’s that?” he asks with a straight face. “I wouldn’t know how to turn one on.” Much has changed in 20 years.
The traffic past Knox’s porch has increased tenfold as the number of the drivers he actually knows decreased proportionately, but apparently, the yearning for connection, however tenuous, hasn’t. It was strong enough to compel one woman to stop her car and back up — in heavy fog and rush hour traffic — rather than miss her morning salute, a few years ago.
“Several people have told me I was the only person to speak to them all day long,” Knox says. “That’s just wrong. Some people drive by with one hand on the wheel and a cell phone in the other, but they beep and wave anyway. “There’s a lot more turnover now, though,” he adds. “You see the same people for three or four years, then you never see ‘em again. But a lot who leave, stop and say good-bye.”
Several families have stopped by because their children wanted to say hello.
“One little boy brought me a green cap,” Knox says. “It was a Thursday, so I make sure to wear it on Thursdays when I figure he might ride by.”
After two decades, he’s a landmark, a fixture of life in Cornelius. At Halloween, he rigs up a plastic skeleton to wave alongside him. His porch and minuscule front lawn are coveted spots during the annual Christmas parade.
A local artist has immortalized him in watercolor. His church, Mount Zion United Methodist, asked if he’d pose for photos as part of a recent scavenger hunt.
Davidson College students send pictures and write home about him, and a group of eighth graders from Davidson Day School spent an afternoon interviewing him about his experiences in Vietnam as part of their oral history practicum. Yet for many years, he declined requests for interviews, only relenting after people stopped to tell him how much his friendly wave at the start or end to their day has meant to them.
“I wanted to thank them for waving at me,” he says. “I didn’t have anything else to do and it really helps pass the time. If I lived way out from town somewhere, it would be lonely.”