CAMDEN – Kert Ingraham’s road to fame, his path to becoming the muse for  “American Pie” singer Don McLean, was a simple one.

He was told he couldn’t smoke inside the senior care facility where he lives. So he began spending his days sitting outdoors, beside busy Washington Street. To pass the time he began waving at people.

Now, about four years later, he’s one of the best-known people in Camden, the inspiration for McLean’s new song “Waving Man,” and the leader of the town’s most recent Memorial Day parade.

“I can’t smoke anywhere on the property, so I came out here,” said Ingraham, 86, sitting by the street in front of 63 Washington Street. “Then I just started waving at people.”

Ingraham was already known for making people smile with his persistent waving, sometimes six hours or more a day, when his Camden neighbor McLean wrote “Waving Man” last year. The song will be on McLean’s upcoming album, “Botanical Gardens,” due out later this year. McLean’s wife, Patrisha, filmed Ingraham waving and put a video of him, with the song, on YouTube.

The video has spread Ingraham’s face — and his wave — across the country. But Ingraham stays put, manning his waving spot every day.

Drivers honked their horns, yelled “Hi Kert” and waved emphatically as they passed by Ingraham Thursday. Ingraham, wearing an orange hat given to him by Camden police, waved a red bandana. He shouted “Hi” or “Hi there” or “Hiya” to keep up with the steady stream of cars driving up the hill from Camden’s busy downtown.

McLean, a Camden resident for more than 20 years, doesn’t know Ingraham personally. He has waved at Ingraham hundreds of times, as most people in town have. But, unlike most people, McLean can take a mundane daily observation and write a three-minute song about it.

“Waving Man” is what McLean imagined Ingraham’s life story to be, from the few details he saw, including the motorized wheelchair Ingraham sits in and a cap he sometimes wears that says “veteran” on it. But the song is also about the emotional power of waving, with lyrics asking, “Does he wave goodbye to the life he led? Or does he wave hello, to the life ahead?”

“I don’t know about that,” said Ingraham, who has heard the song several times. “I just wave at the people I see.”

As Ingraham sat by busy Washington Street Thursday, 21-year-old Louisa Stancioff walked up to shake his hand. Her car was in the shop, she said, but usually she drives by Ingraham daily on her way to work downtown.

“I see you every day, and it just makes me smile,” she told Ingraham.

INSPIRATIONAL, NOT BIOGRAPHICAL

McLean, 69, said that after seeing Ingraham waving on the roadside for years, he began to “fantasize” about his life and about why he waved. He began to think more thoughtfully about using Ingraham as inspiration for a song while writing for his new album, which was recorded in Nashville over the past year or so.

McLean never asked Ingraham about his life. He wanted to write a story inspired by Ingraham, not his biography.

“I saw him waving to me, in all kinds of weather — hot, cold, rain — and he began to get to me. I sensed a story about him would fit on the album,” McLean said. “I just took what I saw, what appeared to be this noble man who, with whatever strength he had left, was waving to the world for whatever reason. I found it to be poignant.”

The song “Waving Man” has a country flavor, with a steady strumming of acoustic guitar and McLean’s clear, strong voice telling the song’s story.

And it is, indeed, a story.

I can tell by his cap, that he was in the war, but he don’t get around, like he did before. When he waved those troops onto a foreign shore, and he lost his friends, that he did adore.

Raised on a potato farm in Sherman, in southern Aroostook County, Ingraham joined the Army Air Corps after high school, around the time World War II’s fighting was ending. But tensions were still high. Japanese and German cities were occupied. Ingraham became a mechanic and eventually a crew chief, working on bombers. He spent time stationed in Alaska, after asking to be stationed somewhere warm.

Ingraham’s son, Thom, a retired school principal, says his father suffers from some short-term memory loss though he’s still “sharp” and has very good recall of things that happened to him years ago. He said his father, though flattered by the song, would never want people to think he fought in World War II, when he didn’t.

Ingraham uses a walker inside and his motorized chair outside, mostly because of the lingering effects of an auto accident he was in while in the service. He suffered severe injuries to his legs and back and was hospitalized for about a year.

While in the Army Air Corps, Ingraham began to try to figure out what he’d do after the service, and how best to use the money available to him through the G.I. Bill of Rights. A friend in the Army suggested that he consider three professions people always need: doctor, lawyer or undertaker.

“It took too long a time to become a doctor, and too much money. Same thing for a lawyer. But an undertaker, I could take a course for 12 months,” he said.

Ingraham bought a funeral home in Bangor and eventually owned a memorial company and a business that flew remains back to Maine for burials. He liked the funeral business.

“I liked the people, dealing with the families,” he said. “It can be a comfort, to have a good funeral home.”

BUILDING A LIFE, FINDING A HOME

Well he waved hello, when he came back home, and he told his girl, he would never roam. And he raised his kids, until they waved goodbye, then he waved good luck, though he had to cry.

Ingraham was on leave, in Sherman, when he met his future wife, Lillian, the daughter of a minister from Nova Scotia who was working in Maine. The two had a short romance before getting married. They had five children together. During the marriage, which his son described as “stormy,” Ingraham worked as a funeral director and as a service manager for a national refrigeration company, in different parts of the country. The marriage ended in divorce after 30 years.

Four of Ingraham’s children live in Maine, so he waves hello to them often. Thom, the oldest, lives one town over, in Hope. Ingraham was an air conditioning contractor later in life and lived in Skowhegan. He moved to 63 Washington Street nearly four years ago. Besides some memory problems, he has been hospitalized with breathing problems caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his son said.

At first, he did not want to go into assisted living. But as he waved the afternoon away Thursday, Ingraham said that he “loves” living in Camden and all the people he meets waving. He can take his motorized chair downtown, to visit the waterfront, buy cigarettes and have a beer.

“How you doin’ Kert? Been to Cuzzy’s lately?” yelled one woman from passing pick-up truck, referring to Ingraham’s favorite spot for a brew.

“I may go down this afternoon, if it doesn’t rain,” Ingraham said.

Does he wave hello, or does he wave goodbye? Only he can know, what he waves and why.

McLean has written before about people who inspired him, famously the artist Vincent van Gogh in the hit song “Vincent.” He’s written songs or parts of songs about homeless people, a fortune teller and society ladies.

But Ingraham is the first person he’s observed daily that inspired him to write a song. McLean has not tried to meet Ingraham and has declined to have his photo taken with him, for fear of “exploiting the situation.” He’s content to keep the relationship one of artist and muse.

“I don’t want to make this any more than it is,” McLean said. “From what I hear he’s a great guy. I’m glad people are talking about him and what he does for people. He deserves it.”

McLean has been performing “Waving Man” at his concerts this year and says people like it. The crowd usually waves along.

Since recording the song, McLean has heard from people in other parts of the country who have their own waving man, someone who seemingly has nothing better to do than sit and wave at folks.

Then again, it might be hard to find something that is better to do.

“I just love waving to people,” Ingraham said. “And they seem to like it too.”