Old Postal Soldiers Never Die

Photo: National Postal Museum

Washington got hit with two or three inches of snow on Tuesday morning, which is to say that Washington was semi-paralyzed. At 9 a.m., streets around the Capitol were white and icy as the hired plows from Virginia slowly rolled in. The wait for a cab at Union Station was 40 minutes.

But I waited. I was early for Postmaster General Pat Donahoe’s swan song performance at the National Press Club. Even in New York, whose widespread subway network makes storms less of an excuse for late commuters, this accumulation would have delayed any early morning event by at least 20 minutes. But when we squeezed into the small room packed with reporters and photographers and walked to the front row (where, for some reason, people don’t like to sit), there sat the PMG, serenely greeting people he knew and waiting to be called to the podium.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…

I flashed back a month or so to an exhibit hall-turned-auditorium holding a few thousand people, and the Harlem Gospel Choir heralding the arrival on the circus-like stage of a Salesforce.com SVP. We cover all forms of direct marketing here at DMN, digital and analog. We don’t discriminate; we just write about what works best and when. But I couldn’t help thinking as I sat there, watching the Postmaster General blithely accepting being ignored, about Douglas MacArthur’s remark to Congress after Truman deposed him as head of forces in Korea. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

Postal officials are the polar opposites of digital marketing executives. Siliconites tend to be shooting stars who rise to ungodly heights or burn out before their wisdom teeth have been extracted. Postal executives are long-haulers. Donahoe started as a postal clerk in Pittsburgh 39 years ago. His successor, Megan Brennan began her career as a letter carrier 28 years ago. Chief Information Officer Jim Cochrane has been in the service as long as Donahoe, also starting as a clerk. This career-long devotion to one organization used to be common in the private sector, but no more. The fact that it still exists somewhere is, to this writer at least, heartening.

You see this throughout all levels of the Postal Service and into the printing, equipment, and direct mail agency world entwined with it. So many of the people who work in allied industries (more than a few of them USPS vets themselves) have personal relationships with senior postal executives. There is a high level of postal nerdism in this world, a life-embracing devotion to the logistics and the free-world duty of picking up mail pieces and packages in one place and delivering them to a doorstep, or a palace, or a barnyard.

The nerdism extends to the general populace, as well. Last year nearly 400,000 people visited the National Postal Museum, crammed with loads of cool stuff that you’d never find in, say, a Facebook Museum. There’s Owney the dog, the late-19th century mascot of the Railway Postal Service, in the taxidermied flesh. There are some of the first planes ever to take flight, which did so in the service of delivering mail. There are the handcuffs that Postal Inspection agents used to subdue “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. There is the first stamp ever produced (by England in the 19th century), four priceless “Inverted Jennies,” and the original art for the Elvis stamp—the most purchased of all time. With some time to kill after Donahoe’s speech, I stopped by the museum and got a tour from Director Allen Kane, a one-time USPS marketing chief. He started as a letter-sorter in Queens in the Seventies.

Call me old, call me dated, and you won’t be wrong. But there’s something appealing to me—and I think to most people—about things that can be touched, things that are long-lasting and slow to change. (Anybody recently stick a pine tree in your living room?) That’s the Postal Service in a nutshell, and that’s not digital marketing, where a new form of message delivery or data collection is born each week, continually spinning the heads of already confused marketing practitioners.

That was, in a way, the leitmotif of the PMG’s speech yesterday: Our pockets were rifled by the Treasury, our most profitable product has been superseded by email, Congress doesn’t care a whit about us, but you still can’t kill us!

Donahoe presided over the Postal Service in a time of great challenge and great change. During his tenure 305 mail processing facilities were consolidated, and 82 more will follow by the end of this month. Some 23,000 delivery routes were eliminated, as were 212,000 positions—all by attrition, as Donahoe was proud to point out. “I remember seeing 100,000 jobs leave Pittsburgh as steel mills closed in the Eighties. That’s something that always stayed with me,” he said at the National Press Club event.

There, too, the Postal Service announced that it had set a record of 28 million packages delivered on a single day this holiday season, on December 22. The old soldier will now fade away but, Donahoe vowed, the Postal Service will never die.

“That’s a testament to an incredible organizational effort and employees who are highly dedicated to their public service mission,” said the longtime veteran of the routes as he prepared to hang up his Postal Service blues. “With all of the technology changes and disruptions, the Postal Service still remains a critical part of the American economy and American society.”

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