Cambridge’s Willie Nelson becomes instant ‘celebrity’ after waving picture goes viral

A simple wave is all it takes to brighten someone’s day.

Willie Nelson, a resident at GracePointe Crossing Gables East, waves to people as they drive by on Highway 95 in Cambridge. Photos by Rachel Kytonen

For the past few weeks, if you’ve driven by GracePointe Crossing Gables East along Highway 95 in Cambridge, you may have seen an older gentleman sitting outside by the highway in his wheelchair giving you a smile and a wave.

This gentleman, Willie Nelson, has lived at Gables East since Halloween. Nelson, a veteran, served in the United States Marine Corps for four years and has two children and six grandchildren.

Nelson has become quite the “celebrity” around the Cambridge community and beyond after his photo was posted on the Isanti County Sheriff Office’s Facebook page on May 31 by Isanti County Chief Deputy Lisa Lovering. As of June 12, the Facebook posting has 5,500 “likes,” been shared 1,159 times, received 488 comments and reached over 264,000 people.

“One day, I went out for some fresh air and was watching the cars go by so I just started waving,” Nelson said. “Once I started waving, people started waving back to me. I thought, man, that’s kind of cool. It brightens my day to put smiles on people’s faces, so I’m going to keep waving.”

Lovering had seen Nelson outside waving, and she was glad she was able to chat with him.

Pictured with Willie Nelson are GracePointe Crossing community relations director Julie Tooker (left) and campus administrator Brandi Barthel.

“I told him that I really enjoyed seeing him outside waving to people and it really brought a smile to my face,” Lovering said. “It is oftentimes the simple things that we need to treasure, and such a simple task of waving to people to brighten their day, I wanted him to know how much it meant to me. I had no idea the impact that it had on everyone else as well.

“Willie and I just made small talk about him being a Marine and how much he missed home-cooked food, especially treats. The chaplain, Norm Norland, had also come outside, so we all chatted. Willie likes to play games during the day inside but really looks forward to coming outside to see people.”

Following the Facebook posting, Industries Incorporated of Cambridge brought Nelson home-baked cookies, a card and one of their Heritage Barn Wood Products wood flags for him to hang in his room to show their appreciation for his service to our country.

Isanti County Sheriff Chris Caulk also presented Nelson with a Challenge Coin from the Isanti County Sheriff’s Office commemorating the Sheriff’s Office 30 years of service.

Industries Incorporated of Cambridge recently presented Willie Nelson with home-baked cookies, a card and one of their Heritage Barn Wood Products wood flags to hang in his room to show their appreciation for his military service. Photo provided

“After Chief Deputy Lisa Lovering stopped and talked to Willie, I found out that he served in the military. One thing that is common in the military is to always have a Challenge Coin, and I knew he would appreciate a Challenge Coin from the Sheriff’s Office,” Caulk said. “To show appreciation to Willie, I wanted to give him the coin so he knew that his small act of kindness has put smiles on hundreds of people’s faces each day, mine included. Also to show him the appreciation we in law enforcement have for our men and women in the military, both past and present.”

Nelson said he had no idea the impact his waving has made on the community.

“I really enjoy it and love to see people smiling and waving back to me,” Nelson said. “I’m just trying to make people happy, and I think every town should have a waver.”

Julie Tooker, community relations director for GracePointe Crossing, said people who have never met Nelson have called and stopped in looking for Nelson to express their appreciation for his service and brightening their day. She said Nelson has received many home-baked goods and well as one of his favorite foods, chicken wings.

“We’ve had a lot of comments from the community about Willie,” Tooker said. “It just goes to show you how one small act of kindness can have an entire ripple effect on our entire society and culture. We are glad we can be on this ride with Willie.”

Deb Ryberg, resident services director at GracePointe Crossing, said this experience has really lifted up Nelson’s spirits.

Isanti County Sheriff Chris Caulk presents Willie Nelson with a Challenge Coin from the Sheriff’s Office. Photo provided

She explained Nelson had been feeling a little sad that he’s no longer able to ride his motorcycle, and his “waving” has given him purpose and value again.

Caulk said it is nice to hear of the positive feedback Nelson has received since the initial Facebook posting.

“I told him that his kind wave not only picked me up, but many others and that he truly has a calling which is service to his community and that comes in the form of a wave,” Caulk said. “We live in a time that seems to always be too busy to just sit back and smile. Well, Willie is helping us all to sit back in driver’s seat and just relax and smile as we wave back to him. I wish we were all a little more like Willie and remember to take time in life to smile and wave.”

Lovering said it’s obvious the community appreciates Nelson.

“I think the community treasurers him and they look for him too,” Lovering said. “We often need these little day brighteners and you never know that a small wave or a smile will do to someone’s day. This is Willie’s way to contribute to our community and I find it a generous gift to all of us.”

While the Cambridge Police Department is supportive of Nelson and the positive impact he has had on the community, the Police Department is asking that people only “wave” back at Nelson, and refrain from honking, as the Department has received complaints about the honking from residents in the area.