By Melanie Peeples
Photos by Kathryn Bell
Neither snow nor rain nor heat keeps Thomas Russell from his appointed rounds. Yes, he’s delivered mail in the snow before, trudging up and down the parts of his route that must be walked. Of course, there was that one time he got snowed in at the post office before he could even get the mail to the truck, and he ended up spending the night at the post office, like a lot of other letter carriers. (You might remember that storm, too.)
But Monday through Saturday he’s here in Homewood, walking up and down Roseland Drive and the Glenwoods, and Linwood. Part of the route he can do in his mail truck, but there are some stretches where the mailboxes are mounted on houses instead of on posts on the street.
So, he puts his mail truck in park, grabs a handful of pre-sorted mail, and starts up the lawn. “This is the fun part,” he says. “You get to meet everybody.”
He sees the toddlers who stand and wave from the glass paneled front doors. He knows who works from home, and who has the best swing on the street. (Fran Chaiprokab.) “That’s where she’s at all the time,” he says. He knows Jessica Parris’ son flies on a skateboard with his friends. “They come down the street all kind of ways.”
He knows sure as anything that when Kelly Weekley gets home from school with her two kids in the car, her 2-and-a-half year-old daughter will escape, and Kelley will end up having to chase her. Russell has nicknamed her Speedy.
Russell, too, likes to keep moving. His route takes him anywhere from five to eight hours to complete, depending on the time of year and amount of mail. As he climbs the steps to Roger White’s house, Roger makes a beeline for the door, never missing a chance to give Russell a hard time. “He always brings me bills,” Roger says. “That’s where all these bills come from. It’s Russell!” Russell just chuckles, and it’s clear he’s a part of this community as much as if he lived on this street.
Everyone wants to ask him how far he walks every day, but he doesn’t want to know. His sister tried to buy him a watch to track it, even told him to use his cell phone to figure it out, but he’d rather NOT know. “I just don’t think about it,” he says. “See people, laugh, have fun. See how everybody’s doing—that’s the part I like.”
Russell does not care about the weather either. “No, if you’re gonna be a mailman, you might as well throw that out. Weather does not make no difference,” he says. “If you’re thinking about it, you need to quit.” Because, he says, you’re not gonna make it.
There’s not just the mail to deliver. There are the packages. Amazon and FedEx use the Postal Service, too. And in this pandemic, there are a lot of extra packages. He hefts one up on his shoulder and heads for the front door. A dog jumps behind a window, and Russell gives a wave. I ask if he’s waving at the dog. “No, I’m waving at her,” he says, about a woman I can’t see. But Russell sees her. “She just had a baby,” he explains. And the parcel he just left on her doorstep—it looked like a baby-entertaining or containment system—could be the difference in whether this new mom’s day ends in tears or smiles.
For many people, especially during the pandemic, Russell is the only person they see on a daily basis. In fact, the Postal Service has a program to train carriers to notice if an elderly person stops collecting mail or coming to the door, so he keeps his eyes and ears open. If a house gets too quiet, he talks to the neighbors.
Well, he talks to neighbors anyway. In fact, the people on his route have heard him mention he might be retiring soon. He’s already put in enough years for a pension, but he’s still going, and says he’ll keep going as long as he feels like it. He’s been delivering mail for 20 years, and at 57, he’s still doing fine. He says this is the best route with the best people that he’s ever had.
People have started to worry that he might actually retire. So, just in case, they’ve decided to throw a party for their favorite mailman. Even people who have moved away from his route are helping. People like Kristen Snell. “He just has the most joyful, happy, spirit,” she says. “It’s like, if you see Russell, you just know you’re going to have a great day.”
She jokes that she doesn’t know how he manages to get his route done in time, with everyone wanting to talk to him, but he does. He’s the kind of mailman who took the time to get the entire post office to sign a get-well card to her after she had brain surgery earlier this year.
“He makes a connection with everyone,” says Kelly Weekley. “He just really helps unite our community. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when he actually does retire. I hope they have a great replacement because he’ll have some big shoes to fill.”
The Post Office’s Unofficial Motto
Most people think the United States Post Office has a motto that goes something like, “Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night shall keep them from their rounds.” But that’s not quite right. Although the words have long been associated with The U.S. Post Office, it actually has NO official motto.
So, where did this idea come from? You have to go back to around 430 BC and a Greek philosopher and historian named Herodotus. When he described the ancient Persian couriers, he wrote:
“It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”
Fast-forward a couple thousand years, and architects were designing the New York City General Post Office. The chief architect was the son of a classics scholar and read Greek for fun. He had the idea to engrave a modern translation of Herodotus’ words all around the outside of the building:
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Those words seemed to clarify the letter carrier’s mission, and they remain today.