Four mornings a week, the fleet of daily commuters heading to the mainland from Vashon’s north-end ferry dock roll past Bruce Brown, a ferry worker who directs them onto the waiting boat.
He’s impossible to miss. Brown’s a big man — 6 feet 3 inches and of no small girth – cloaked in a fluorescent safety vest as he directs traffic onto the boat. But what distinguishes him most — and what makes him beloved to many islanders — is something extra that he does as he loads cars and passengers onto the boat.
He smiles and waves to every person driving onto the boat. Walk-on passengers get even more attention — a friendly hello, an exultation about the weather, a personal greeting.
“You’re doing good, you’ve got good karma,” he shouted on a recent morning to a young man running down the dock, huffing and puffing as he tried not to miss the boat. “Thank you for hustling.”
To a woman with a cold in the terminal waiting room, Brown offered a steady call and response of “bless you’s” to match each sneeze.
A smile. A wave. An encouraging word. These are ordinary gestures, but when they are repeated, hundreds of times a day by a single person, they become extraordinary. And so say many island commuters. In fact, in conversations with more than a dozen islanders, not a single one failed to light up with a smile of his or her own when asked about Brown.
Miranda Carr, a 21-year-old single mother who hitchhikes down Vashon Highway every morning to catch a boat to her job at a Subway in Seattle, said she found Brown’s presence on the dock a constant source of inspiration.
“He’s always smiling and waving, even in the rain,” she said. “He brightens my day no matter what my mood is.”
Chad Anderson, who commutes daily to Seattle, also enthused about Brown. He said he especially relishes the times he gets on a ferry with his children and Brown is there to direct them onto the boat.
“It has become our ritual to roll our windows down and give him the happiest of hellos right back,” he said. “We look forward to it, and as a father, I use those times as an opportunity to teach my kids that no matter what you do for a living, do it with a smile.”
Tom Rantz, who is Brown’s supervisor on the dock, said simply, “I wish we could clone him.”
Brown’s good cheer is even more remarkable considering his work schedule. Three nights a week, he leaves his home in Port Orchard for his own commute on an 11:05 p.m. Southworth boat, arriving on Vashon in time to start a midnight to 10 a.m. shift. Then on Saturdays his work schedule is turned upside down: He works a day shift, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. And although his near-constant smile and unlined faced make him look much younger, Brown is 56 years old.
So what is Brown’s secret?
On a recent morning, Brown settled on a bench outside the terminal to talk about his life. He began by marveling at the good weather — it was 45 degrees and drizzling at the time, with deep banks of grey clouds covering the sky like a lid. Referring to the mist as “liquid sunshine,” Brown said the Northwest’s chilly weather had an upside.
“It keeps the population down,” he said with the chuckle that peppers much of his conversation.
He’s lived in the region for years, but he grew up as a military kid on bases all over the world, completing much of his education at an international school in the Philippines. In 1976, he joined the Navy and spent 22 years stationed at Naval Base Kitsap as a boatswain mate, where he had a job working on the USS Rainier, a combat support ship. He retired from the Navy in July 2001, but he said he kept a bag packed after the attacks of 9/11.
“I was ready to return,” he said.
But Brown was never recalled to service, and instead, he set out to find a new career to support his family. He’s the father of three grown children and a boy who is still at home, a 13-year-old whom he calls his “miracle baby.”
When he saw a job posting for the Washington State Ferries, he put in an application and was hired in 2002 to work on call as a ticket taker and parking attendant at different docks. He said he loved the job right away.
“That was easy,” he said. “I got to go home at night.”
He first starting waving at passengers, he said, on the Point Defiance dock. Actually, he clarified, he began by waving back.
“It started with small children in the backseat,” he explained. “It’s a big boat ride for them, and it’s exciting, and some of them would wave at me, and I’d wave back. Once I discovered how infectious it was, I kept doing it. We need that human connection more, beyond the normal courtesies we grew up with.”
Brown says much of the pleasure of waving at passengers is all his.
“I get much more from it than people could ever imagine,” he said, adding that he loves it when passengers return his greetings.
“I find it exciting,” he said. “They’re getting the message.”
His positive outlook came from his mother, now deceased.
“My mother was truly my best friend,” he said. “She was a great influence who taught us that everything occurs in your life for a reason, and you find out the advantages of it.”
Brown has worked exclusively on Vashon for the past five years, and he said that the island is an easy place to smile. He’s gotten to know many commuters personally, and when his work scheduled has allowed, he’s even attended social gatherings here.
“The community we have here is a throwback to the positive things we knew and loved growing up,” he said. “If it was possible anywhere, it was possible here.”
When asked if anything gets him down or makes him want to stop smiling, Brown was philosophical.
“I’ve learned that the things I can’t control, I let go of, and the things I can control, I get right on,” he said.
Last year, Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had surgery in August, followed by a course of radiation that ended in December.
Now back at work, he said he’s being monitored and feels great.
“I don’t bounce like I used to,” he said. “But you do what you can.”
And then, of course, he smiled.