BROOKINGS – An ever-present figure in downtown Brookings is gone.
Glenn Whitaker, 85, more commonly known as Glenn the Can Man, died Jan. 29 at the Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton.
Glenn was born in 1934 and raised on a farm near Draper, the oldest of seven kids, said Vern Whitaker, Glenn’s nephew.
Glenn suffered a brain injury in a fall during his childhood and he only completed three years of schooling, so he never learned to read or write, said Glenn’s brother, Duane Whitaker, of Glendale, Arizona.
After the family moved into Murdo, Duane recalled Glenn shoveling sidewalks around town in the winter months.
“He always wanted to talk to people. That was his thing,” Duane said. “I guess you’d say he was a fairly social person.”
From the age of 17 to sometime in his 40s, Glenn did farm work, Duane said.
Glenn then worked as a custodian at South Dakota State University from 1982-2002, Vern said, and he lived in his own home near the local grain elevators.
A downtown fixture
Downtown is where the bachelor liked to spend much of his free time, socializing, riding his bike and lawn mower, gathering cardboard and cans for recycling, picking up trash and spending his money up and down Main Avenue.
Vern, of Brandon, said Glenn started his can cardboard and can recycling business to help make ends meet.
“He didn’t have enough money left over at the end of the month, so what did he do? He started collecting cans and cardboard. And ‘The Can Man’ came to life.”
But it was more than a job to him. Getting out and about and socializing was just as important to Glenn.
“That’s what he loved to do. Sit out in front of Ray’s for hours at night and talk to all the people out there. Every college kid who went to school up there, for years, ... knew him. (Being known as Glenn the Can Man), that was his business, and he was proud of that,” Vern said.
Glenn even handed out business cards designed for him by an SDSU student, according to a 2010 article in The Collegian, SDSU’s student-run newspaper.
“When he was getting cans, he was picking up trash and throwing stuff in the garbage. He cared about the town,” Vern said of Glenn.
“He enjoyed all the friendship. He was proud of knowing people. Getting by in this day and age with what he had, and being such a positive person, ... he’s my hero,” Vern said.
Vern made visits to Brookings every other Sunday, to take Glenn grocery shopping and to make stops at Lowe’s, Runnings, Walmart and Burger King, and to just hang out.
“He had a good heart, and he tried his best to make all the family gatherings,” Duane recalled. “He was a good brother, and he did his best for someone who had the handicaps he had. … He worked all his life and he owned his own home, so that’s pretty good. He managed to make everything work.”
His Brookings family
Glenn is remembered fondly by business owners and operators along Main Avenue.
Ray’s Corner Manager Lisa Steenson said Glenn always wanted to be friends with everyone.
“He just always so longed for the human connection,” Steenson said. “He loved hugs and would try to sneak in a kiss.”
Steenson said people would always ask about him. “People were genuinely concerned about him. He was the topic of many conversations, ‘Have you seen Glenn?’ ... The whole town watched out for him. He was a kind man. It’s sad to see him go.”
Bargains on Main owner Corey Haug said Glenn paid him a visit every couple of days, to say hi and to shop, since about 2009.
“He was always really friendly, always wanted to compliment the ladies. He was a character, that’s for sure,” Haug said.
The business owner said Glenn always wanted him to save cans, and Haug would give Glenn rides or deliver items to him when needed.
Jamie Werre of The Exchange said Glenn also stopped there a few days a week, and her brother would give him rides to stores and the community gardens and fix and move things at Glenn’s home.
“He was a sweet old man, and he would give us crap,” Werre said, laughing. “But a lot of people didn’t give him enough credit. He knew what was going on. He was pretty funny.”
The Exchange owner Steve Torino added, “He was an original recycler, before it was cool. He did a lot of things in his life. He was a farmer and worked up at the college.”
Torino remembered fixing Glenn’s bike, and Glenn’s pride in his garden.
In an email to the Register, Glenn’s great niece, Desi Kranz, said, “While living in Brookings, I realized that my great uncle Glenn was an active community member and had achieved a certain level of local fame. It seemed like everyone in town knew Glenn and welcomed him.
“He lived humbly and found joy in the little things, especially riding his bike and gardening. The waves, handshakes and many friendships he shared with permanent Brookings residents and college students always brought a smile to his face.
“He would say he collected cans for extra income during retirement, but I think he liked that it got him out and about. Local downtown business owners, other community members, and college students were often kind to this very special man and helped him fix his bike or just chat and share a meal.”
Vern said Glenn lost mobility and had been in a nursing home during the last few months of his life. He had been at the South Dakota Human Services Center in Yankton most recently when he fell ill last week.
Glenn is survived by one brother, cousins, many nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews.
Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]