Rochester’s Second Street is home to many institutions familiar to locals and visitors alike. There’s Mayo Clinic, Mayo Clinic Hospital’s Saint Marys Campus, the Canadian Honker and Virgil’s Auto. And then there’s Joe Johnson, a beloved fixture better known as the Second Street Waving Guy. Almost every day for the past decade, Joe’s been out on Second Street waving flags in outfits as flamboyant and joyful as he is. “I love my waving,” he tells us. “Some days I’m out there four, six, eight hours a day. Weekends too. People see me and think, ‘This guy won’t give up.’”
There’s more truth to that than many people realize. Joe took up his position on Second Street after experiencing a series of losses that left him reeling. First, his father, an Army veteran, passed away. Soon after, Joe had to give up custody of his son. And then, an ex-girlfriend was killed in an auto accident. The one-two-three punch left Joe “devastated,” he says. “I lost everything I loved. I had to figure out what to do to keep surviving.” His saving grace came courtesy of some flags in his apartment. Memorial Day was coming up, and Joe decided he’d “make my dad proud by waving the flag” that day. So he did. For 14 hours. And “people went crazy,” Joe says. “They waved and honked. I was stunned.” He was also hooked, and tells us his flag waving has allowed him “to take the negative in my life and put it into a positive.”
This summer, Joe had some company at his post. Walter Franz, M.D., a Mayo Clinic physician and retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, joined Joe to wave the flag on the Fourth of July. “I thought what he was doing was very positive, so I asked if I could join him,” Dr. Franz says. The two waved together from mid-morning until late afternoon, Dr. Franz wearing his full-dress military uniform and Joe in a red, white and blue “uniform” of his own. “I loved waving with Dr. Franz,” Joe tells us. So much so that “I cried inside myself. Just standing with a solider, I was so overcome. It’s something I never thought would happen to me.” The two waved together again on July 24, greeting motorcyclists taking part in the benefit ride for Ronald McDonald House of Rochester.
Joe tells us it makes him “feel grateful inside to know that people like what I’m doing.” And he hopes that when people see him, they feel inspired. “Everybody thinks they can’t do something, but if they see me, maybe they’ll decide to try something, too,” he says. “Maybe this will give everybody more opportunities.”
If you — like us — can’t get enough of Joe, you can learn more here, here and here. (And we thought we had a scoop.) If you can’t honk and wave at him on Second Street, you can show him some virtual love on his Facebook page. Then salute us by leaving a comment below. You can use the social media tools to share this story with others.