Herschel Johnston: Trekking Through 31 Years of Mail

by Debbie Winchester, Staff Writer
With Christmas swirling in soon, mail begins to draw more and more attention. Everyone knows that early mailing of cards and packages will insure their delivery before Christmas, but hardly anyone realizes the effect the early mailing has on the post office and, more importantly its employees.

Retiring Wednesday, Nov. 27, just before the seasonal rush, Herschel Johnston a mail carrier for some 31 years at the Warsaw branch of the U. S. Post Office spoke of good and bad times on his daily route.

A Warsaw native, the 64-year-old carrier graduated from Warsaw High School in 1929. Before taking the examination that was to establish his life-time career, Johnston worked for 13 years as an apprentice pharmacist at the Lantz and Dufur Drug Store in Warsaw. The drug store was located in the building at 124 South Buffalo where Lord's Dress Shop is now located.

Johnson first became interested in working as a mail carrier through his association with postman Adrian Coplen. "I had talked to him a number of times," Johnston said, "and it always kind of appealed to me."

When the decision to become a carrier was made and the time came for Johnston to take the postal examination, it was Coplen who gave him the books necessary to study for the written test.

Lengthy Exam
unlike the basice true and false test taken today, the exam Johnston took required lengthy written responses to the questions. My hand felt like it weighed a pound when I got through it," Johnston recalled. He had ranked eleventh out of the 65 who took the exam at the time.

Although he took the test in 1935, it was not until six years later that he officially became a mail carrier.

Starting in the Christmas season of 1941, Johnston worked and learned as a substitute for the first three or four years. And there was a lot for him to learn, including how to "case" the daily mail load so that it would be easier to deliver from house to house.

Before going out to deliver, all the carriers must sort their loads according to house numbers on the particular streets they deliver. The sorting or "casing" has to be done accurately and quickly because only a specific amount of time is allowed for it each day.

Assigned as a regular carrier to the northwest section of Warsaw when the carrier for that section of the city died, Johnston carried deliveries to that part of the city designated Route 2, for more than 28 years.

Route Motorized
Originally a walking route from start to finish, the postal organization motorized the route around Christmas of last year. But the gray-haired Johnston still walked nearly 15 miles a day. "The route is still walking mostly," Johnston said. "We drive the Jeep to the region we are going to deliver to and then use it as a relay box." That accounts for the disappearance of the hulking green boxes that were always so visible when one wanted to mail a letter in a hurry, but could not find a "real" mailbox.

Most of the businesses on Johnston's route had changed at least once since he first started walking it, but a lot of the residents stayed the same. "I carry mail to a lot of older, retired people. They don't move much," he said. "They are bounded by the lake on the one side and the swamp on the other."

3 Different Postmasters
Employed under three different postmasters, Johnston said the first one he worked under had always said that a mail carrier never makes a mistake. Of course, the carriers are only human. Whenever he made a mistake, Johnston said the complaints were usually waiting at the postoffice by the time his route was finished.

One couple in particular stuck in Johnston's mind. He said this couple on his route complained about the mail service almost all the time. They even went as far as to write a letter complaining to the Postmaster General in Washington, D. C. about him. Then, when they learned Johnston was retiring, they confessed they were going to miss him. "I didn't have a very soft spot in my heart for them at the time," Johnston said, "but you kind of have to forgive them."

In the 31 years Johnston was a carrier, the location of the Warsaw Post Office never changed from the corner of Lake and Market streets. To reach the area where Johnston once cased his mail, marked "Herschel Johnston Route Number 2 Mail, Only, a path had to be woven through mazes of desks, baskets, leather pouches and other casing stations.

To people in the lobby, the great load of mail is not completely visible. But behind those small windows where the clerks of the post office operation stand, is an area filled with people and tons and tons of mail.

Space Needed
Hesitant to cite problems in the local post office, Johnson consented that the post office is in need for more space for its daily load. The building itself is actually small. "It is congested most all the time," Johnston said.

"We were, at one time, promised a new post office," he continued, "but something happened to it. There was some dickering here and there, but nothing ever came of it. Eventually we will have to have one if the town keeps growning."

At one time the mail was delivered from the main office to the Warsaw branch by train, but in more recent years semi-trailer trucks had taken over this end of the mail service. Since the mail is presently delivered to and from the office in South Bend by the big trucks, any new construction would need enough space for the rigs to turn around. "We would need nearly a city block to build a new building now," Johnston said.

All the mail collected at the Warsaw office is packed up and sent to the main area office. There it is sorted and sent on to wherever it is supposed to go for delivery.

Zip Code Important
Even the local Warsaw mail is sent there and then back in time for delivery the next day. It is a round about trip for the local letters but Johnston stated that it does not delay delivery unless no zip code is included in the address.

Since it is sorted by computer, the machine kicks out any mail addressed without a zipcode. It then must be sorted by hand. Although the location of the local branch has not changed, the location of the main office has changed several times. At one time the main postal office for this area was located in Cincinnati. Later, the postal organization "supposedly decentralized" according to Johnston and Fort Wayne was named the district office location. Now the bosses of the local area mail operation are stationed in South Bend.

Fewer Magazines
Through the past 31 years the appearance of the carriers' loads have changed. Parcel post has dwindled and fewer and fewer magazines are appearing in their pouches. That mail so lovingly titled "junk mail" by those on the receiving end, is getting heavier.

The reason businesses are turning to this advertising more and more, Johnston said, is because of the price. "There has been some increase in price, but very little," he said. "You can always tell when the economy is getting tight. Every time business gets tight, they begin to throw that advertising in there.

The mail carriers used to have to purchase their own uniforms. Now they are supplied with a uniform allowance. "But actually it is hardly enough to outfit a fellow when he first starts in," Johnston stated.

An avid hunter and fisherman, Johnston likes the outdoor work unvolved in being a mail carrier. At one time, the post office started to give him a job as a clerk, but shince he had spent those first 13 years working in doors at the drug store, Johnston decided he did not want to work inside.

Although the decision may have later cost him a position as a carrier supervisor, he was placed back on the route. He applied for a supervisor's position later, but since he had not logged any official time as a clerk, he did not get the position.

Dogs Problem
Traditionally mail carrier have always had problems with dogs and not because the dogs are overly friendly. "There must be something about all the straps and the leather pouches that the dogs think is threatening," Johnston said, stating he had been bitten quite a number of times. "If the dogs gave us too much trouble, we could always ask their owners to keep them tied up. They were always pretty good about it."

Johnston said there was not so much of a problem with the dogs since the city passed the ordinance stating owners must keep their dogs tied up. "Only now they tiem them to the mail boxes," he chuckled.

Some dogs, however, always seemed more curious than vicious. A dog owner himself, Johnston holds fond memories of one dog named "Dopey".

Day after day Dopey would meet Johnston at the beginning of his route and follow him until he was through carrying in the mail for the day. Then the dog would go home. "He would go with me the whole route," Johnston recalled. It was uncanny, he wouldn't go with any of the subs."

In the years the dog walked the route with Johnston, he never bit the mailman, although he would run a block to get a kid with a cap gun."

Dopey Retires
Finally Dopey grew too old to run and play along the letter carrier's route. There were even times the dog could hardly get up and down the curbs, but he was always there waiting.

When Dopey did not show up to go with him for several days, Johnston became curious and asked the owners about the dog. "They told me they had been afraid he would get hur since he was so old," Johnston said, "so they had him put to sleep."

Residents of 768 West Center Street, Warsaw, Johnston and his wife, Irene, were married in 1932 in her home town of Grand Rapids, Mich. Mrs. Johnston is a retired employee of the Kimble Glass company.

3 Sons
The Johnstons are the parents of three sons, two of whom still live in the Warsaw area and the third who resides in Scottsburg, Ind. They also have three grandchildren, one a freshman at Manchester College, one a junior at Warsaw Community High School, and the youngest a one year old girl for whom Johnston is doing his grandfatherly duty of spoiling.

During his retirement, Johnston has plans to do many things he has not had a chance to do very much of in the past 31 years, including visiting some of his wife's relatives in Florida. "Of course, at Christmas time we'll be back here for the kids," he added.

Stating there is no mandatory retirement age for postal employees, Johnston said, "I could have gone on for a few more years, but I felt I was overdue already. "I never missed any time at all.. no I want to do a little loafing and get used to it," he said. "I have got some fishing and hunting to get caught up on. I never even got my boat in the water this year.

Daily Routine Gone
Having had two leg operations, Johnston continued, "Before anything else hits me, I thought I had better quite while I am ahead." He said it would be a transition to get the daily routine out of his system after so many years.

Many people are going to miss the smiling, gray-haired letter carrier, but they won't forget him nor will he forget them. On his last day, several members of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the carriers union, presented hi with a small pin honoring him on his retirement. Johnston had served for approximately 20 years as secretary of the union.

The people on his route honored him too. A daily stop for a fried egg sandwich and coffee, Johnston made his last regular stop in Paul's Sandwich Shop on his last day. But this time 25 other people were waiting for his appearance with a special cake and an ice-fishing shelter for their long time mailman and friend.

(Note: Herschel Johnston passed away Jan. 16, 1999)

Warsaw Times Union, Spotlight Dec. 14-21, 1974