Mike the Mailman makes going postal a happy event in Happy Valley

Dispatches from the States of Pennsylvania: University Park

This is one in an occasional series looking at what's on voters' minds across the commonwealth. See earier Dispatches from Erie and Good Intent.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In a nation of churlish voters and bureaucratic martinets, the post office employee least likely to go postal is a whimsical clerk named Mike Herr who presides over the mail and momentary happiness of 40,000 students.

Citizens are anxious, unemployment won't budge, a sixth of those polled think Obama was born in Kenya and voters rank Congress just a few points above the Manson family. Yet, with tea leaves portending insurrection, it seems the happiest place in Happy Valley is a government installation: the one-man post office branch on the campus of Penn State University.

When someone enters wearing a shiny pair of sneakers, Mr. Herr drops everything, rings a small bell and holds up a handwritten sign that says, "Nice Sneakers."

Ask him if he's Mike the Mailman he'll say it's a possibility. Ask him where he grew up he'll challenge the proposition that he ever did. Tell him you are sending a late birthday card, and he will pull out a rubber stamp and slap on an official-looking "I Sent This Last Week." Students have come to ask for that one by name.

"I think if you're going to be someplace for eight hours, make it fun not only for yourself but the customers," says Mr. Herr.

Since then the office has taken on the color of old time post offices, the kind that were often set up in general stores and remote country outposts, where people would gather, send their parcels and stay on to socialize.

"I have to send this one piece of mail. I need one stamp. And I don't mind waiting on line," says Annette McCormick, a junior from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "I usually wear my cool sneakers, and he'll hold up the sign. I can't not be happy in this place."

True, agrees Mr. Herr, he's never going to be named Disgruntled Employee of the Month. He joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1968 after studying computer engineering. At the time all the jobs were far away and, born and raised in Lock Haven 15 miles north of here, he wanted to stay close to home.

In 1978 he was assigned the cozy little office in a basement room near the student union. He soon turned it into that rarest of places: a post office where people don't mind having their pictures on a wall.

Mike the Mailman's post office has the mandatory exhibit of government notices and racks selling official USPS gear. But one wall is dominated by pictures of old students, a stand-up-Joe Paterno cutout holding the latest Penn State football score, and posters ranging from Nittany Lion football to Nittany Lion cheerleading and an autographed poster of the school's fencing team.

Over the years he has done mail call at 3 a.m. on Sundays for students dancing in the university's fundraising marathon. Once, he recruited David Newell, known as Mr. McFeely on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," to help him hand out packages. Students who show up with packages that threaten to disintegrate in transit are summoned to -- and actually show up at -- his special wrapping class at 6:03 a.m. on Tuesday mornings. He serves treats. Everybody laughs it up, and packages arrive home intact.

"It's full service," he explains. "Most of the time I get 10 to 12 people here."

A similar number turn up for the 6:03 a.m. Wednesday seminars on the post office, but the lure could be the sticky buns from the local diner.

Why 6:03 a.m.? He offers no clear answer.

"It seemed to be a good number. I like the number 6:03," he says, as if he didn't know that most college students didn't know 6 a.m. existed.

People have suggested Mr. Herr seek a higher station. He has been advised to run for mayor of State College. He prefers to run a post office, so long as he can run it in a way that keeps people happy.

"Anyone that comes in here -- staff, faculty, students -- everybody's pressed for time. I just want them to enjoy the two or three minutes they're here," he says.

A young man approaches the counter.

"I want to mail this as cheaply as possible," a young customer tells him.

"Wanna send it postage-due?" he replies.

He keeps the newest stamps -- the kind honoring old comic strips or filled with floral patterns -- on hand. One customer told of the time a student brought in a package marked "fragile." Mr. Herr excused himself, walked to a back room where he picked up another box filled with loose metal and dropped it with a wonderful, heart-stopping crash.

Odd parcels are welcome with the enthusiasm that might greet an engineering project two blocks away in the college of sciences.

"Somebody brought in a coconut. She said, 'Can I mail this coconut?' I said, 'Well, if you have money you can mail anything,' " Mr Herr recalls.

They etched in an address, taped down the postage stamps and, for good measure, Mr. Herr marked it "fragile." Off went the coconut.

"She was sending it down south somewhere, I think Florida," he says. "Three days later it arrived."

For a long time he worked alongside a partner, Don the Mail Guy, and still cherishes a photo that shows the two of them with a few students with post office tape over their mouths posed like hostages with the legend "Mailmen Gone Wild."

Don was transferred last year to the main branch in State College, and customers here still speak of it as if he had been sent into Babylonian exile. For a time, the post office installed a vending machine to fill in for Don, but nobody seemed interested. On a given morning, students and professors line up in a long row and simply watch in amusement as Mr. Herr makes convivial with each customer.

On the wall, he has posted his "Cookie-of-the-Month" club list. These are students who brought him cookies. Over the years students and faculty have turned him into something of a campus mascot, dispensing cookies, pizza, vacation souvenirs. On this morning, a woman apologized for being away a while and gave him a small basket of home-grown tomatoes.

"You never have to wait in line again," he winks.

On Mike's wall, from his days when he worked alongside Don, are two lists: Freshman Things to Do and Senior Things to Do. Each involve study, laughter, family and, of course, a recurring reminder "bring cookies to the mailmen."

Ten years ago this counterbureaucratic paradise was disturbed by the arrival of a new postmaster. According to students, she looked around the room and ordered the nonregulation posters and pictures and doodads taken down.

A crowd was downtown in State College protesting in a day. Then-University President Graham Spanier, the son of a postmaster, sent an indignant letter.

Mike the Mailman's wall was restored to its merry chaos.

Stephane Coutu, a Canadian-born physics professor, stands in line with a smile and tells of how a postal employee captured the hearts of generations. Mr. Coutu contributed a souvenir moose after one visit home.

"Every year when we have homecoming there's a parade through town, and there are two people who are always the highlight of the parade," says Mr. Coutu. "One of them is Joe Paterno. The other's Mike the Mailman."

Joe Paterno once wanted to be governor. A hint, perhaps, of things to come for Mike the Mailman?

Chris Tanner, a buff, weightlifting student waits in line, and he's having none of this.

No way. "President," he says. "I say president."

Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. Look for Dennis Roddy's new political column Tuesdays on Early Returns at http://earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com First Published October 3, 2010 4:30 AM


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