by ZACH KAYSER
The older mail carriers of Winona are a distinguishable bunch. Under their belts are decades of service giving people mail. They are pointedly pleasant in a way only a mail carrier — a Minnesota mail carrier — can be. In a time of great division, they provide at least one connection between neighbors who might not share politics but share the same mail route.
Greg Miranda has worked 26 years as a mail carrier for the Winona Post Office. His connection to the community is evident when he takes gleeful pride in pointing at various houses on his route with a half-gloved hand and rattling off facts from the people he knows at those houses. He began his mail career after getting laid off by IBM, when his brother-in-law talked him into taking the postal worker’s exam. Miranda scored high, and joined the ranks of the United States Postal Service. “It worked out okay for me,” he said.
He was struck by the physicality of the job, as well as the mental gymnastics of memorizing Winona streets from the East End to the West End. Despite being a Winona native, a young Miranda still had to learn the names of places he knew only by sight before.
Now in his 50s, Miranda said the brain exercises have slowed down but the physical exercises haven’t. He has walked his current route for seven years, and the people on the route know his name, his family, and many go to the same church.
One of the most poignant connections is that of his deceased father, whose memory is still very much in the hearts of the Winona residents on Miranda’s route despite him passing away 30 years ago.
“Thirty years is a long time to be gone — when people say they remember my dad, they went to school with him and stuff like that, that’s always a really sentimental thing,” Miranda said. “I’ll be 57 here this summer. To hear stuff like that, it’s just kind of warming.”
Lee Besek started working for the post office in 1965 and kept going for 36 years — what he considers the best years of his life.
He came to the job when a bartender who also worked as a mail carrier suggested Besek should take the civil service exam. “So, hanging around taverns was a good deal for me,” Besek joked.
The local bars also came in handy after he started as a mail carrier, too. Besek said he had a mental map of all the spots on his route with public restrooms. But having to walk around town was a burden that Besek had sought out. He had first been assigned to work indoors, but after six months he transferred to outdoor duty as soon as the opportunity came up. To get his walking route each day, he and the rest of the town mail carriers had to take a city bus to drop them off at their respective starting points — nobody got their own vehicle. As the years went by they were eventually issued jeep-like trucks to haul mail in, and some time after that, the vehicles they use today. They sorted mail by hand until machines and then computers took over.
“I left just in time, because everything’s computerized now, and I’m not a computerized person,” Besek said.
The beginning of Besek’s time as a mail carrier intersected with the time America was at war in Vietnam. Besek had already done a hitch in the Army earlier in the 1960s, at missile facilities near Chicago. His prior service meant he was able to stay on his route even as the tumult of the era swirled all around. He was not called on to deliver war telegrams telling families their son had been killed, he said, but he did recall passing by military funerals for the soldiers as he walked his route.
Both Besek and Miranda remembered an incident that they said was the only time the route got canceled during their entire career, although it was not clear if they were talking about the exact same day. It was a Minnesota winter that was so cold the trucks, which otherwise would have shipped mail to Winona from outside town, couldn’t start. The mail carriers didn’t perform their delivery route, simply because there was nothing to deliver. Otherwise the mail route ran like clockwork, Besek remembered. The old folks would say that when the church bells at St. John Nepomucene church rang, they could expect Besek in two minutes.
Besek said he also had a soft spot for the kids and dogs on his route. He would give them treats he had bought at a discount after Christmastime. “We’re not supposed to do it, but I did it anyway,” he said.
He was bitten by a dog only once— a small, yipping mongrel that ran up to him, bit him hard enough to draw blood, then ran away again. Besek walked two more blocks until he got the wound bandaged at another house on his route, then finished the rest of his houses.
Like Besek, Richard “Dick” Modjeski was a military veteran when he came into the postal service. Except Modjeski had been an Air Force crew chief teaching recruits how to maintain B-29 Superfortress and B-47 Stratojet heavy bombers. Unlike missiles, the bombers came from an earlier time in America’s nuclear arsenal when men would have to carry the nuclear weapons to their targets. When he got back to Minnesota, Modjeski started carrying mail instead.
He did it for more than fifty years, receiving a commendation for a particular moment that occurred one cold day in late fall of 1980. He came upon an elderly woman’s house on his route and noticed the mail from the day before hadn’t been picked up, but her door was wide open.
“I yelled and yelled, but couldn’t get anybody [to respond],” he said. “So I went around to the side, I thought maybe I could look in the windows. But being an older lady, she had them heavy curtains; you couldn’t see in.”
Modjeski got a neighbor to call the police, then kept going on his way. Later, he found out the old woman had been lying on the floor for days, alive but immobile. She was taken to the hospital, and Modjeski was lauded for saving her life.
At 88, Modjeski believes he is the oldest living Winona mail carrier. He remembers when, in 1970, the U.S. Post Office changed its name to the United States Postal Service under the Postal Reorganization Act signed by President Richard Nixon. He remembers when the post office was issued a fleet of Nash Rambler sedans made by the American Motors Corporation, now defunct for decades.
Modjeski, Besek and Miranda are all part of a tradition that is changing radically as less young people are inducted as mail carriers and more things are sent through Amazon or the internet. In a way, they were more intimately acquainted with Winona than any of their fellow residents. Every day they walked out in the streets, visiting each house. The way of the mail carrier might have to change, but the bond they represent does not.
A mailbag full of thanks
The Winona Post put out a call on its Facebook page for readers to send in mentions of their mail carriers and the connection they shared. Here are some of the responses:
“Ours is Rick Hovey! He’s very liked and appreciated in our neighborhood!” - Nicole Fedor
“Pete Van Gundy on a rural Houston route. Always goes out of his way to bring packages to the house and always has a smile. Thank you!” - Linda Fort
“Ours is Bruce Nicklay. He always has a smile, a warm hello and is a very good mail carrier.” - Sally Ann Mogren
“Daryl Anne Stangl. She works all over town filling in wherever needed. Always goes above and beyond.” - Dave Pierett
“My mail carrier is Sheila Langowski. She is awesome! She waves hello if I see her. When I was ill she brought the mail right to the door. She constantly is paying attention to see if anyone’s mail is piling up and checks to make sure people are okay! She is the poster child for outstanding mail service!” - Beth Eichman