ANTIOCH -- Theris Lee started walking down Hillcrest Avenue every morning 17 years ago to help control his weight and diabetes.

Over the years, he's found it has helped his heart in a much more fulfilling way.

Lee is known by many Antioch and East Contra Costa morning drivers as the guy who is always smiling and waving (either with his walking stick or empty hand) as he makes his way down the busy thoroughfare.

"I try to bring people joy. And it brings me joy on the inside, too," he said during a recent morning walk, waving his stick to say hello and receiving many approving car honks.

"It's not for show; it comes from the heart."

Lee, 78, is known by several nicknames, including "Walking Man," "Stick Man" and "Mr. Happy."

"I especially like seeing the little kids. They roll down the windows and wave. It warms you up, because all they know is here's a friend," he said.

Lee retired in 1998 after working as a MUNI bus driver in San Francisco for 30 years, where he grew accustomed to greeting passengers warmly.

He started the walk routine shortly after retiring but has slowed down to walking just three days a week outdoors, the rest of the time opting to use a treadmill indoors.

Every morning he sets off at 6:30 a.m. for the four-mile walk down Hillcrest to the intersection near Walmart and back. While striding down the road on a recent brisk morning, Lee explained he enjoys walking outdoors because the air is refreshing, and saying good morning to people helps keep his mind off the walk.

Not everyone waves back, but that doesn't bother Lee, who finds it helps his soul to share kindness during his walks. The devoted Christian says he was "saved" almost three decades ago, and participates in church functions three days a week in San Francisco.

Lee often receives a welcoming toot of the horn and sirens from the fire engine at Station 88, or from Antioch police.

Theris Lee of Antioch takes his morning walk up Hillcrest Avenue and smiles as he waves to cars passing by in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013.
Theris Lee of Antioch takes his morning walk up Hillcrest Avenue and smiles as he waves to cars passing by in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Lee, a retired MUNI bus driver, has been walking for the last 17 years and is very well known as the guy who waves at everyone as they drive by. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

"It's become kind of a habit. It's our way of saying hello back," said Contra Costa fire Capt. Ben Sanders, noting that he and the two firefighters he works on shift with see him routinely. "He's just one of those guys that genuinely appears to be happy and makes others happy."

Lee often sees the same cars every day at the same location.

"I've had people tell me they know they are running late if they see me at a different spot," he said.

When Ann Bacin moved to Antioch in 2008, her boss mentioned that her home is located near "the man that waves and smiles at everybody in the mornings."

"He's just the nicest man. Seeing him there day after day just kind of brightens your day and takes you out of the doldrums of commuting," she said.

Geneva Lee, his wife of 27 years, says Theris is somewhat of a local celebrity.

"People recognize him at the grocery store, sometimes even at the BART station. People tell him he brightens their day," she said.

What amazes Geneva during those encounters is her husband's skill at recognizing some of the regular drivers.

"He'll look at someone and be like, 'Oh yeah, you drive a gray Honda Accord,' and I'll just look at him like, 'How did you know that?'" she said.

Over the past year, Antioch commuters have probably noticed less of Theris in the morning. With Geneva retired, the couple does more traveling, including to a home near Clear Lake.

"People will pull over and ask if I'm all right because they haven't seen me," he said.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.