Part-time job became a career for a letter-carrying mom


August 05, 1999|By Diane B. Mikulis | Diane B. Mikulis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHAT STARTED as a short-term, part-time job for Jane Bates became a 29-year career. On Saturday, Bates retired from her job as a rural mail carrier in Glenelg.

Bates has watched the landscape of western Howard County change from farmland to fields and woods dotted with housing developments. The old dirt roads have disappeared, and the traffic has increased.

But Bates remembers most the people she got to know while working her routes.

"My fondest memories have been the friends I have made through the years," she said. She stays in touch with many who have moved.

Bates, her husband, Alvin, and their two children moved to Clarksville 31 years ago. Tom Brown was their mail carrier, and because he had no regular substitute, he worked six days a week.

"One day, my wife was helping me out by delivering packages at Christmastime, and she got stuck in the snow in the Bates' driveway," Brown said.

The two women talked about Brown's need for a substitute while waiting for him to come get the car out of the snow.

"I wasn't really thinking of a job," Bates recalls. "But I thought one day a week wouldn't be bad. What better way to learn the community and the people?"

Her children, Michael and Monica, were in school, so she had some time available.

She started work in February 1970, expecting to keep the job for a year. In December, Brown was drafted and sent to Germany.

Bates decided to work full-time to hold his position for him. For two years, she worked six days a week.

Bates started early in the morning, sorting mail at the post office. Then she would go on her rounds. She was home before the school bus dropped off her children.

When Brown returned, he took back the route, and Bates substituted for him for a couple of years. Brown has 33 years with the Postal Service and is working in Clarksville.

When a full-time route became available because of a retirement, Bates decided to take that job.

"I kept saying, `I'm only going to work a couple years,' and it ended up being 29," she said, laughing.

When she started, the Clarksville route also covered Glenelg and Dayton. There were 43 houses.

"There were miles between houses. You didn't have developments then; it was all farms," she said. "And you didn't pass many cars."

Bates transferred in 1982 to the Glenwood Post Office, where she was the only carrier. In the mid-'90s, she moved to Glenelg. She was familiar with the area because it had been part of her Clarksville route until the Glenelg Post Office was opened in Ten Oaks plaza. "I feel blessed to have had this route," Bates said. "With the rolling hills, it's beautiful, peaceful, serene."

A photograph album attests to that. Bates has kept a photo history of her mail routes, including pictures of herself and co-workers over the years.

Bates enjoys talking about the early days.

When she started, the post offices were small spaces in general stores, and one by one they relocated to new buildings. But with the growth in our area, those buildings are becoming too small.

"In the early days, we didn't have the kind of mail we have now," Bates said. "And there's a large volume of parcels now, which has increased over the last few years."

Bates said rural mail carriers are called "post offices on wheels." Years ago, she did a brisk business selling money orders and stamps. Some patrons would leave cash in their mailboxes along with their bills. She would make out the money orders and post the payments.

There weren't many banks or grocery stores in western Howard then. Sometimes patrons who were home all day -- especially the elderly -- would leave money along with a note asking her to pick up bread or toilet paper. After work, Bates would pick up the items and deliver them.

Rural mail carriers use their own cars, and in her 29 years, Bates has gone through seven vehicles. She carried a toolbox and spare parts such as water hoses, fan belts, brake pads, clamps and electrical tape so she could make quick repairs when necessary.

"I used a lot of tape patching up split water hoses," she said.

And what about that arch nemesis of all mail carriers -- the dog? Bates said she never had a problem with canines.

"The dogs love me," she said. "When they see me coming, they get excited."

That's probably because she carried dog cookies.

Dogs aren't the only ones who are fond of her. Bates' postmaster, Mary Lou Jestes, said that Bates' patrons all loved her as well.

"She just went out of her way for everyone," Jestes said. "When they came in the office they'd always ask for her so they could say hello."

Jestes is on assignment to the Woodbine Post Office. When she returns to Glenelg, Bates will be gone.

"We're going to miss her," she said.

Bates is happy with her decision to retire and looks forward to having time to pursue her many hobbies and interests. She plans to resume oil painting and playing the piano. She also wants to spend more time in her garden.

She and her husband have traveled extensively throughout Europe and Japan. "I have some favorite places I want to go back to," she said, mentioning Switzerland and Japan as possible destinations.

Alvin Bates, who retired from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory three years ago, is glad to have his wife home with him.

As they sat in their back yard surrounded by towering trees, they said it is hard to believe that western Howard County has changed so dramatically in the past 30 years. It's a wonderful area to live in, they agreed.

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