(Editor’s Note: Celebrated as the “Waving Man” or the “Park Heights Gnome” because of his bushy beard and rather impish appearance, longtime Owings Mills resident David Neil Alt Sr. was quite a welcome sight to many weary motorists in the Northwest area. With his trademark friendly roadside greetings and hearty salutations, he was a fixture that brightened the days of countless passersby for many years along the Park Heights corridor. Alt passed away on Dec. 8. The following is a tribute to the former draftsman penned by his friend and admirer, Jeff Sirody, and published last week by Jmore.)
It was the spring of 2014 when I first met David Alt. I’d had a Facebook conversation with several friends, and we were all curious about the older man with the bushy beard and overalls who stood for hours each day at the end of his driveway along Park Heights Avenue, just north of Velvet Valley Way, smiling and waving to passing motorists.
Who was this man?
Having driven past him twice a day for a few years, I had to know his story. So one day, I simply pulled into his driveway, got out of my car and introduced myself.
Dave was a bit guarded at first, but I explained to him that so many of us were very curious about why he stands out there day after day, waving to us. It turned out he was very willing to share his story, and we chatted for about 25 minutes. He told me he has lived in his Owings Mills home on Park Heights Avenue — originally built by his father – for all but seven of his then-72 years.
He used to stand outside and wait for the mail truck, but around 2009 the students on buses from the nearby Bais Yaakov School for Girls started waving to him. This shy, quirky gentleman enjoyed the attention, especially since he did not have too much social contact.
At one point in our conversation, he pulled out a photo album from his back pocket and showed me pictures of his family. Just a year earlier, his 17-year-old granddaughter died suddenly, and he was mourning her loss. He was estranged from most of his remaining family.
In a way, these Bais Yaakov girls waving to him from the bus had become his surrogate family. He even kept a notepad on which he would keep count of how many motorists waved to him on a daily basis.
We could’ve chatted all day, and I felt bad for leaving. But that evening, I reported my findings on Facebook to a receptive audience, with folks eager to “get the scoop.” Ann Schwartz, Dave’s former daughter-in-law, contacted me, saying that he is a lonely person and the attention he gets from motorists brings joy to his life.
As more people read this post, the volume of waves, shouts and honks from motorists sharply increased for Dave. When I last visited him, he told me that people bring him cards almost every day, as well as baked goods and other tokens of affection and gratitude. He was almost embarrassed by all of the attention yet sheepishly energized by the interactions. He even constructed a makeshift billboard next to his driveway on which he posted salutations, mostly relating to Jewish holidays.
Keep in mind that Dave is not Jewish, although his grandson is Jewish on his mother’s side. But Dave has connected with Judaism through the Bais Yaakov students, always cognizant of each Jewish holiday.
However, a few weeks ago, the waves abruptly stopped. Dave was diagnosed with Stage-3 bile duct cancer. Too weak for surgery or chemotherapy, he has been moved into a hospice, where he is being kept as comfortable as possible.
Upon learning of his grim prognosis, our community has rallied around this sweet, gentle soul, and Dave is now being showered with well-wishes, every single one of them lifting his spirits, according to Ann.
In today’s world of perfunctory greetings and declining civility, Dave’s simple and pure gesture of waving and smiling at folks hearkens back to a kinder, gentler time. What began as a lonely man’s way to connect with others has developed into a symbiotic relationship with this community, and all of us are richer for the experience. The way so many have embraced him speaks to the best in humanity.
Please send cards, messages and prayers for this guteh neshumeh (good soul) to: David Alt c/o Joseph Richey House, 838 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore, Md. 21201.
Jeffrey M. Sirody is an attorney who lives in Owings Mills.