How one local letter carrier extraordinaire demonstrated the value of every-day friendliness
When St. Charles resident Tom Nemec retired in July, residents of one Winfield subdivision decorated their mailboxes, posted signs and drew chalk messages on driveways to bid farewell to their U.S. Postal Service letter carrier. Along his route that week, customers came outside and shook his hand.
How, especially these days, did a mailman become such a part of these people’s lives?
Nemec, 66, says he is no different from other letter carriers — he paid attention to his customers and helped out whenever he could. Years of short conversations with residents built relationships.
“You end up knowing them,” he says.
Nemec met a retired submarine commander on his route and connected him to another retired submarine commander a few blocks away. He noticed the woman using a walker to reach her curbside mailbox, so he began rubber-banding her mail to make it easier for her to carry.
He learned which people work nights. “The first time you wake them up with a package,” says Nemec, “you learn you don’t ring the doorbell there.”
His actions, he maintains, were not unusual. “You try to provide the best service possible,” he says. “You help them out with special needs.”
He carried dog biscuits for his customers with four-legged friends, and felt really bad on the few occasions he ran out before the end of his 553-stop route.
“They’d look at me and I’d say, ‘None today!’ I’d make up for it the next time. Meanwhile, I’ve never had a dog bite.”
He did, however, help a customer carry her ailing Golden Retriever to the car for a last ride to the vet . . . just two days after taking the same heartbreaking trip with his own Golden.
Typical letter carrier behavior? So many customers considered him atypical enough that when one woman stopped at the Wheaton Jewel to pick up balloons, mentioning to the clerk why she needed them, the clerk answered, “Not another person buying stuff for that Winfield letter carrier!”
The most exciting thing Nemec saw in nearly three decades of delivering mail was an impaired driver plowing his vehicle into a cement pole. But life before the Postal Service was eclectic.
Nemec’s first post-college job was as an assistant store manager at an Elk Grove Village Walgreens. Weeks after he transferred to another store in 1976, his former co-workers were arrested for murder. (Frank DeLuca and Patricia Columbo were denied parole in April.)
After working as a police and fire dispatcher, Nemec became an Addison firefighter/paramedic. He was searching for a second job when The Blues Brothers was being filmed in Chicago.
“As I was filling out the application for security personnel, the casting director asked me to work in the movie,” he recalls. He played multiple “extra” roles — state trooper, fireman, national guardsman.
An injury ended his firefighting career, so for a decade Nemec worked on 50 TV shows and movies — first bit parts, then behind the camera as a production assistant, location assistant, atmosphere coordinator and office assistant, the latter being the only job that earned him a film credit, for Michael J. Fox’s movie, Light of Day. He worked with Roger Moore, Goldie Hawn, Ed Asner and Richard Gere and was a stand-in for Craig T. Nelson.
Though fun, the film and TV work was inconsistent. Nemec’s brother-in-law, a letter carrier, suggested Nemec take the test and try it for six months. Nemec liked not only the steady paycheck, but being outside and on his own most of the day.
“From day one I started knowing people. A lot of people come out to get their mail, on Saturdays especially,” says Nemec.
“People are still friendly, although they are often looking at their phones instead of each other. With social media, people sometimes don’t pay attention to what’s around them. But if you say hello, they say hello back and you strike up a conversation.” That’s his secret?
“Being friendly to people. That’s about it.”
Nemec’s postal career ended with an outpouring of appreciation so sincere, it was better than working on any movie.
“With all my jobs, that was the most touching, emotional thing that’s happened. It was something.”Edit Module