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Who's that waving man? Revisiting the legacy of Johnny Barnes

Statue out front of GCVI facing Paisley Road is of a Bermuda man. So why and how did it end up out front of this Guelph high school?

Around this time seven years ago, a statue of a waving man appeared on the lawn of Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute, flanked between two benches and facing Paisley Road. 

That waving man is the late Johnny Barnes, a Bermuda man known for greeting commuters every day during the work week. Some claim he’s Bermuda’s most famous resident; there is even a short documentary about him on YouTube titled Mr. Happy Man

Every day, he would stand facing a busy street from 3:40 a.m. to 10 a.m., waving and blowing kisses to all the commuters, saying “have a good day” and “I love you” to everyone who passed by. 

So why is there a statue of him at GCVI? 

It was donated by the Keenan family at the request of former principal Julie Pendergast. 

She first saw the statue when helping a friend with property maintenance at the Keenan’s Caledon home.

“As you drive up this long sweeping driveway, you come around this corner, and all of a sudden, there's this statue of this man, and he's waving to you,” she said, struck by the welcoming image of the statue.

When the family put the house up for sale, she convinced them to donate it to the school. Given the work they were doing around inclusivity, respect and kindness, she said “it seemed to be a really good fit. Especially around the idea of welcoming diversity.”

That welcoming energy is what Barnes strove for. 

“I stand on the corner and just greet people, let them know that life is sweet, life is beautiful. No matter what happens in life, it’s always sweet to be alive,” Barnes said in Mr. Happy Man. “Enjoy the sunshine, the flowers, the birds; they are happy. The good lord and I are just trying to make people happy.” 

The inclination started when he was still working as an electrician, and later a bus driver: he would spend his lunch breaks waving to people. After he retired, in the late '80s he started doing it full-time, stationing himself at a busy roundabout in Hamilton, Bermuda.

He would wave to traffic from around 3:45 a.m. to 10 a.m. every workday, rain or shine. As he got older, he woke up a little later, but went to his post just the same. 

He was there nearly every day until he “retired” in 2015, and when he did, local radio stations received frantic calls from people wanting to know where he was. 

Residents say his greeting was like a good omen, and could easily turn their day around from bad to good.

“There was a morning when I was travelling into the city. It was not a happy morning,” said one woman interviewed in Mr. Happy Man. But when she saw Barnes, she said she couldn’t help but smile.

He helped her “remember that I had a choice for my day: to smile and be happy, or carry this heavy weight of anger with me. And that’s what he reminds me of, every day, that there’s a choice in how we start our day.”

In fact, they loved him so much they had a statue commissioned in 1998, 17 years before he died. 

Life-size and bronze, the statue still stands on Crow Lane, not far from his old post at the roundabout. 

The Keenans regularly visited Bermuda, and saw Barnes every time they were there. 

“I guess the Keenans, they just love this idea (of the statue),” Pendergast said. “They had a very soft heart for Johnny Barnes.”

So, they had a replica of the original statue made for their own property in Caledon, where Pendergast first saw it. 

They placed benches beside the statue, and she said students regularly sit beside him during their lunch breaks, often dressing him up for different celebrations, decorating him for Diwali or Valentines Day. Recently, students dressed him in an orange shirt for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

She said he’s been “helpful in representing that welcoming spirit at the school.”

But there is more connecting Barnes to the school than the statue. Former GCVI custodian Robert Brown is a distant relation of the waving man. 

“A year ago, he messaged me saying the statue is getting a little bit tarnished and needs to be cleaned,” she said. “So he went out and tried to polish it up as best he could.”

There is pin on the pocket of the statue, she said, which is supposed to bring him good luck.

“His mission was just to make people smile,” she said.

She was worried the students might deface the statue or put inappropriate things on him, but she said beyond the occasional minor incident, like Silly String, “the students have been totally respectful.”

Before he passed away in 2016 at age 93, Barnes was made aware of the statue, and said he was grateful for it. 

“The greatest thing in the world is love,” he said in a follow-up video to the documentary. “We need to have more love in our hearts.”