Retired downtown North St. Paul mail carrier leaves big shoes to fill

Virgil Crowder, photographed back in 2007, has recently retired after decades of being a familiar sight around downtown North St. Paul. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Virgil Crowder, photographed back in 2007, has recently retired after decades of being a familiar sight around downtown North St. Paul. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Crowder saying farewell to Doreen Hruby, an employee that often greeted him at Sandberg Funeral Home. (submitted photo/Rick Nelson)
Crowder saying farewell to Doreen Hruby, an employee that often greeted him at Sandberg Funeral Home. (submitted photo/Rick Nelson)
Crowder clocking out after delivering to businesses downtown at 3:06 p.m., on his last day. (submitted photo/Rick Nelson)
Crowder clocking out after delivering to businesses downtown at 3:06 p.m., on his last day. (submitted photo/Rick Nelson)

Mail carriers face some peculiar hazards, from territorial pets to winter conditions extreme enough to shut down schools. For veteran mail carrier Virgil Crowder, this meant facing the elements even when the wind chill once dropped below 50. As for the dogs, he never saw the occasional run-in as a deterrent to completing his rounds.

“I know there’s always the dog stories,” he says, noting his consistency on Route 910 allowed him to better avoid the aggressive ones. “I was pretty lucky. Bit one or two times, maybe three.”

After 46 years of delivering mail on foot — in  heavy rain, sweltering heat, and subzero temperatures — Crowder, 67, made his final rounds.

Part of his local celebrity was due to the route, delivering to businesses and residents in downtown North St. Paul. His rounds brought him into businesses, clinics and City Hall as he traveled up and down East Seventh Avenue for 37 years.

So, in recognition of his service, the city proclaimed Dec. 18, 2014 “Virgil Crowder Day,” honoring the dedicated, good-natured man many entrusted with not only their mail, but their friendship as well.

“He was very accommodating,” says city employee Barb Huelsman, who has welcomed Crowder at City Hall for nearly 28 years. “He’s one of them that makes that small-town feel special.”

Family tradition

Crowder’s connection to the U.S. Postal Service dates back to his childhood, when he remembers his father, who worked for the railway mail service in Illinois, saying how grateful he was to hold his job through the Great Depression.

Crowder knew the profession promised a steady income, so when he got a call from the Postal Service after returning home from three years of Army service in Korea, he went ahead and applied for an opening.

On Sept. 21, 1968, Crowder began working as a clerk at the main post office in downtown St. Paul. After about three months of being “cooped up inside,” as he describes it, he switched to the carrier role.

Getting outdoors was worth it, even though he started his first foot route in the dead of winter. He bought a pair of long johns, some boots, and extra winter gear, but recalls the brutality of that first January, when the temperature hovered around 20 to 30 below.

Plus, there was the learning curve of being a substitute carrier, taking unfamiliar routes until he could bid on a permanent job.

“I thought, ‘Geez, will I even make it past probation?’” he recalls.

Up and down Main Street

In 1977, Crowder secured the downtown North St. Paul route. He and his wife, Janet, raised four children in Stillwater while he steadily earned the respect of those he served. In total, he logged 46 years with the Postal Service, 37 of which were spent serving downtown North St. Paul.

“To me, the people were the thing that kept me going,” he says. “Always talking to people, you kind of find out about their lives.”

Looking back, he remembers hauling around thick Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs at the start of the new year, spending about the first two hours of each day hand-sorting bills and letters, and carrying the old horse-and-rider logo on the sleeve of his uniform.

Today, he says, more people are shopping online, postal workers brandish the eagle logo, machines are used to help sort the mail, and the hand-written letter is virtually nonexistent.  

But, in his opinion, the need for mail carriers, even to those who label the service “snail mail,” will always exist. Not only do they make sure mail reaches each address securely and efficiently, mail carriers like Crowder also keep a watchful eye on the neighborhood.

Extra set of eyes

He recalls the time he noticed mail was piling up at a house he delivered to on Eighth Avenue. He asked a neighbor for an update on the residents, an elderly couple, and found out the husband was home alone, since his wife had moved to a nursing home. Concerned, he called the police and later learned that they’d found the man in critical condition but were able to save his life.

Attention to detail marked Crowder’s career in many ways. His manager, Chris Howard, says Crowder was early every day, to the point that co-workers kept a chair near the time clock, where he would kill about 15 minutes before punching in at 6:30 a.m. Perhaps more impressive, he somehow managed to complete his route in the allotted eight hours, a feat few others accomplish with such consistency. Before Mac’s Dinette closed, Crowder could usually make it in before Mac Mulcahy or, later,

John Pontrelli wiped the counters down for the day, treating himself to a hot lunch and some more North St. Paul conversation.

“He was constantly the first person out the door, to start his route,” Howard says. “He was professional in every way.”

By the end of his career in downtown North St. Paul, Howard notes, Crowder had accumulated more than 3,500 hours of sick leave — about 438 days or 11 weeks — that he never used.

The pull of camaraderie with businesses downtown kept Crowder loyal to his route. Even though he became the most senior mail carrier in the whole St. Paul district, he passed on the opportunity to switch to an easier route, one that didn’t require so much walking in the outdoor elements.
 
Staying power of friendship

“He stayed with it because I think he genuinely loved to deliver to the businesses downtown,” says his former colleague, Rick Nelson (who retired the same day after 36 years as a mail carrier). “He’d go into the different businesses and they’d banter back and forth.”

Over at Sandberg Funeral Home, the late Paul Sandberg often joked with Crowder that he could step in as an extra pallbearer for the day if they were short of staff. Paul’s daughter, Mary Kaye, watched the two play jokes on each other and says Virgil always came through their front door with a smile on his face.

“He also understood the side of our business where it was important to laugh to get through things,” she says.

Dave Szczepanski, president of Garry Insurancenter, has known Crowder ever since he started delivering to downtown North St. Paul. He found Crowder’s willingness to get involved with the local business association indicative of his commitment to the area beyond his workday.

“The guy’s been a pillar of the community here for a long time and a lot of fun to have as a postman,” he says.  

Frank Slattery, owner of North St. Paul Furniture, saw Crowder open up over the years. He cherished his own set of ongoing jokes with Crowder, including the time he hid among the lamps in his shop and spooked Crowder during his delivery.

“Virgil was always looking ahead and presorting his mail as he walked down the sidewalk. Something devious got in me,” Slattery says, adding that he scared the “bejeebers” out of Crowder that day.

‘People were wonderful’

In retirement, Crowder and his wife enjoy babysitting their granddaughter five days a week, a task that will require two sets of hands when the next one arrives in May. He also hopes to do a bit of traveling and looks forward to attending his 50th high school reunion. Crowder’s replacement, Howard says, won’t be selected until Jan. 24.

“His route was very specific to him. He knew everybody,” says Howard. “It makes it very hard for anyone to fill those shoes.”

Crowder, who had been known to lose supervisors checking in on him by slipping through the back doors that he knew so well and popping up a block or two ahead of his pursuer, says it’d be nice if someone else from his station inherited the route.

“I look out the window and think, ‘It’s nice I’m not out there today,’” Crowder says, referring to the 20 below wind chill that he narrowly escaped, just three days into retirement. “But you do miss the people. The people were wonderful.”

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

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