A very special delivery

Donor: "The nicest mailman" lives up to his billing when he donates a kidney to an ailing customer.

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

November 10, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - Earnest and unassuming, Paul Wagner seems a postman from a Frank Capra movie.

He says hello by name to the customers along his hilly Western Maryland mail route, pets their dogs (despite having been bitten a dozen times), brings their kids chocolate.

And, this past summer, without being asked, he donated a kidney to a retired sixth-grade teacher on the route, giving new meaning to the Postal Service slogan, "We deliver for you."

These are challenging times for the postal agency, which likely will need a multibillion-dollar bailout to help it fend off anthrax attacks and recover from the terrorism-related mail decline. Even before the bacterial threat, agency critics questioned whether the 226-year-old service has become outmoded in the age of electronic mail, faxes, online banking and rival courier services.

But if the post office is ever to disappear or shrink, its loss - especially in small-town America - will have to be measured in more than economic terms.

In this faded industrial city, isolated from much of the rest of the state by distance and the Appalachian Mountains, the 42 letter carriers don't just deliver mail. They pass along messages and gossip, inquire about customers' ailing relatives, summon ambulances.

Nearly a quarter of Allegany County's population of 75,000 is over 60 years old, and "in a lot of cases we're their link to the outside world," says Linda Vollmerhausen, a Cumberland postal supervisor.

Often, the town's mail carriers become de facto rescue workers because they are first on the scene during medical emergencies.

Or, as in Wagner's case, they happen to hear about a problem and decide to do something about it because they can.

"He's my hero," Vollmerhausen says of Wagner, 42. "The real deal."

He doesn't seem heroic. He looks like a cross between television's Gomer Pyle and Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

"Gomer, yep," Wagner says of the nickname pinned on him by his postal colleagues. "They say I've got the whole Gomer package, voice and everything."

If anyone was born to be a postman, it is Wagner, who lives across the Potomac River with his wife and two children in Short Gap, W.Va. He worked at an office-equipment repair store after high school but missed interacting with people.

He joined the Postal Service here 17 years ago. One day this week, as he strode his route in his blue sweater with the eagle patch, he seemed content enough to break into song.

Wagner hasn't let the anthrax scares deter him. The Postal Service's 162 employees here have been offered protective gloves and masks, but Wagner sees little point in his wearing them. He holds the mail close to his body and says, "If there is powder, it would be up my arm," whether he was wearing gloves or not. He stays vigilant and says he'd quickly wash up at any sign of trouble.

Wagner has about 570 stops on his route, which takes him into neighboring LaVale, a quiet community of about 5,000.

It was during the LaVale deliveries that Wagner often encountered Dave Phillips, 67, and his wife, Jean, in their modest white house on a steep hill.

Wagner didn't know it right away, but Phillips had been suffering from kidney problems since the mid-1990s. By the beginning of this year, the elderly man's strength was fading, the color draining from his face.

On home dialysis four hours a day, the former teacher and principal knew he needed a transplant. But his family members weren't suitable donors.

Phillips never thought about the letter carrier as a donor. All he knew about Wagner was what his wife told him: "We have the nicest mailman!"

When he arrives at the family's door, Wagner usually says, "Hi, Ruby!" to the Siberian husky, and offers candy to any of 10 grandchildren who might be visiting.

Wagner learned of Phillips' condition from the ailing man's daughter, Toni Mullan, 42, who runs a medical supply shop that is also on his route. On most days, he brings her an iced tea with the mail and stops to chat.

Without telling the Phillips family, Wagner began researching the implications of becoming a kidney donor for Mullan's dad.

He decided that the risk to his health was acceptable, and that he could miss up to eight weeks of work (he was back after two). He later learned that his blood type and other characteristics made him an acceptable donor.

The hardest part was telling Dave Phillips what he was proposing. He decided to tell daughter Toni first.

"I remember him standing here," she says, pointing to an area of her shop near a rack of stethoscopes. "He was nervous. He said, `My wife and I have been talking to counselors.' I thought he was trying to tell me that he was having marital problems."

In fact, Wagner was describing how he had sought advice about the transplant from his Baptist pastor and postal supervisors.

Wagner didn't tell his fellow letter carriers. He considered the decision personal. But one carrier, Dick Horn, found out from the Phillips family a week before the surgery May 25, which was successful. It is, after all, a small town.

The ensuing buzz has raised the local profile of the Postal Service just when the agency needed a boost. The patrons on Wagner's route have been leaving him chocolate bars in their mailbox as thanks for his selfless act.

Off dialysis and regaining his strength, Dave Phillips says he feels good about the Postal Service, but adds, "I don't imagine too many other postal workers would have done something like this."

Wagner finds it hard to describe exactly why he donated an organ to a man he knew only in passing. When pressed, he says, "I once had a good friend who died because he needed a bone marrow transplant. I couldn't do anything then. We didn't have the same blood type."

He didn't want that to happen again.

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