He was known by many names. The Park Heights Gnome. The Wizard of Park Heights. “That guy who waves at us on Park Heights.” David Alt, with his short stature and long beard, became a local celebrity — and the subject of folklore — all because one day, he just started waving.
“My boys and I, we passed through on Park Heights going to and from school every day,” said Elise Ziv, a parent of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School students. “We could be in the middle of a conversation and I’d roll down the windows and we’d all stop and know it was time to wave.”
That was the experience for a countless number of Beth Tfiloh, Bais Yaakov and Baltimore County school students and parents, who counted on Alt for a wave and a smile when they passed his Park Heights Avenue driveway, adorned with its PVC pipe-framed signs that carried well wishes for the Jewish holidays, a Shabbat shalom or had the latest news on “MasterChef Junior,” one of Alt’s favorite TV shows.
Alt, who was not Jewish, died Dec. 8 at age 76 of bile duct cancer at Gilchrist Hospice in Baltimore (formerly Joseph Richey Hospice). He had been diagnosed as Stage 3 and doctors determined he could not withstand chemotherapy or other procedures to reduce the cancer.
“It upset me to see him like that, but he was more concerned about wanting the community to know why he wasn’t there,” said Ann Schwartz, the ex-wife of David Jr., Alt’s son. Schwartz remained close with the senior Alt, who is also survived by a daughter, Amy Ackerman of Roanoke, Virginia.
While many speculated about why he waved, the truth is that the waving just happened one day and never stopped.
Alt, an only child and former draftsman who grew up in the house on Park Heights Avenue in Owings Mills between Velvet Valley Way and Bais Yaakov’s elementary and middle school campus, moved back in after his mother passed away about five years ago. One afternoon, he stood in the driveway waiting for the mail. And then the waving began.
“[A] big white van drove by, and there was this one girl sitting in it, and she waved. So I waved back, didn’t think anything of it,” Alt told the JT in 2016. “From there, it escalated to five or six vehicles, to 10 or 20 vehicles.” Alt estimated he waved at 50 to 60 vehicles daily.
“I think at the very beginning when they first started going to school, they weren’t sure what to make of it,” said Jacob Benzaquen, whose daughters attended Bais Yaakov, “and then after a while, it became just a fixture of their days.”
Ziv recalls her and her boys trying to see how far away they could spot Alt from on their drives home.
Benzaquen thought it was nice to see a person among the trees on that scenic stretch of road.
“Seeing him was really a treat, especially Fridays before Shabbos. He’d have signs for Shabbos,” he said. “The truth of it is, most of us assumed he was Jewish.”
And even though he was not, passersby shared the culture, not just their smiles and waves, with Alt. Among the gifts including cookies, lollipops and Slurpees he received over the years were Chanukah gelt, apples and honey and pull-apart challah, a bread he loved so much that he asked for some in hospice.
He also carried around a number of the letters he received in a small portfolio he kept in the back pocket of his overalls. The cards carried messages such as: “When you wave to us, it cheers us up, and when we wave to you, we hope it cheers you too,” or simply, “You’re funny, have a great weekend!”
Alt didn’t have any philosophical mission behind his waving.
“I mean, what the heck, I don’t have anything else to be doing. I figure that if they enjoy it, then what the heck,” he told the JT.
Even a stroke he suffered in the summer of 2017 didn’t stop the waving. Schwartz had to take him to doctor’s appointments and go grocery shopping for him after that.
“He was a lonely man and even when my ex-husband and I split up, if he called I’d take his phone calls,” she said. “He just needed somebody to talk to and feel connected with, and I care for him deeply because he’s family that’s what you do for family.” She said they were “as close as you get.”
He loved his mom’s garden, and would always bring Schwartz some flowers his mother planted that would bloom each year. He even tried to grow pumpkins for his grandkids for Halloween. Schwartz knew there were times she couldn’t call because Alt would be watching “MasterChef Junior” or his other favorite show, “America’s Got Talent.” She brought him his portable DVD player and DVDs of the shows to watch while he was in hospice.
Upon hearing of Alt’s condition, Bais Yaakov elementary school students made him a video.
“He greeted everyone with waving and cheer, so the students did a personal video for him representing the same,” said Bais Yaakov CEO Sandy Nissel. The school also sent him a card to let him know they were thinking of him. “I think he represented cheer and well wishes.”
In addition to hundreds of Facebook shares and messages, Schwartz said at least 30 cards had been sent to Alt’s house by Saturday, and there were already some gifts there.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” she said. “I really thought that everyone waving was brightening his day, but I didn’t realize how much he was brightening their day until now.”
To those whose kids waved at Alt, the small gesture meant a whole lot more.
“I think he was a representation of kindness and openness and people trying to connect with other people; a reminder that a wave or a smile could really change somebody’s outlook for the day,” Ziv said. “It was just nice to see a truly nice person doing this for no other reason than to spread some kindness and joy into the world.”
Benzaquen echoed that sentiment.
“Someone like him can remind us that there’s a lot more in common than that which makes us different,” he said. “I’m sad that he passed, but what he showed me and left the kids was an invaluable lesson. I hope they keep his memory alive by finding a way to emulate his kindness.”
All that, just from waving.
Should be a community effort to keep that sign up and refreshed. A good memorial to someone who definitely had brighten my day frequently.
What a great piece!