After 31 years of delivering mail in the same Friendship Heights neighborhood, postman Hubert "Van" Ventura didn't think there were any surprises left on his route. He was wrong.

On Sunday, Ventura, accompanied by his wife Lillian, walked up the familiar path to Sam and Lois Bryson's home at 5005 38th Street NW. Ventura, who retired last week when he turned 55, was anticipating a quiet afternoon visit. Instead, he found 70 friends from the 38th and 39th Street sections of Fessenden, Garrison and Gramercy Streets who had gathered for a surprise retirement party.

"Just like the mail, always late," laughed hostess Lois Bryson as she greeted the Venturas at the door.

Ventura, who appeared genuinely surprised by the crowd, said he hadn't been expecting a party.

Each of the guests brought along a favorite anecdote about their postman. Many of them were written in the form of letters, and Mrs. Bryson had collected the letters and pasted them in a scrapbook which was presented to Ventura along with a decorated lunchbox containing cash gifts.

As she gave Ventura the scrapbook, Lois Bryson chortled, "We've always suspected you of reading our mail. We even had to deliver the party invitations by hand because we were afraid you would read them. But today, we've gone ahead and read your mail."

All of the anecdotes had a common theme: the personal touch that Ventura had added to his mail delivery.

Bob Smith of Garrison Street said he has lived on Ventura's route since Ventura began delivering mail in 1947.

"In the years I've known him," he said, "Van has changed light bulbs for elderly couples, driven people to the airport on his day off, and has run car motors daily for neighbors on vacation. Why, he's even managed to charm animals notorious for biting mailmen," Smith said.

Ed Stafford, also of Garrison Street, recalled the time Ventura rescued Mike, his runaway cocker spaniel. "Ventura recgnized Mike, took off his belt and leashed him, and drove the dog back home. He told me, 'Here's your dog. I nearly lost my pants returning him.'"

Julia Helms of Fessenden Street NW credited Ventura with "saving my life.

"I had just returned home from the hospital after a spinal fusion and I was wearing a heavy brace," she said. "I was picking up some litter from sidewalk. Some kids thought I would make a perfect target for their snowballs. Mr. Ventura came along, brought me into the house, and then went after the boys."

Hannah Pierce of 38th Street recalled that when her husband, Bob, was Vietnam, Ventura delivered letters from him before he started his route in the morning. And Lela Mead of 37th Street received the same special attention when her son was in the Marines.

Susan Schreiberg of Fessenden Street talked about the time her family was away on vacation and the daily paper continued to arrive. "Every day Mr. Ventura hid the newspaper so potential robbers wouldn't be alerted to the fact that the house was empty," she said.

Nevzer Stacey of Gramercy Street cited an example of the mailman's humor.

"My niece from Turkey lives with me. Her father sends her Persian rice. Ventura delivered it once with the comment, "Can't you convince this man that in America people eat well, and don't go hungry?" She said.

Martha de Lima Luria of 38th Street has lived on Ventura's route since girlhood. For years, she said, she was convinced that the mailman had ESP (extra-sensory perception).

"Whenever he delivered letters from young men, he always knew the ones I was waiting for most anxiously. Finally, years later, Van confessed his system of detection. He told me that if I was getting letters from the same person nearly every day, he knew I must be writing back frequently. When I only heard from certain men once every few weeks, that meant I wasn't answering as fast," she said.

One letter in the scrapbook tells of a family who moved in five years ago. "You're our new mailman, we said.And you answered, no, you're the new people on my route. You were right."

Ventura's boss, James Hawkins, the superintendent of Friendship Post Office Zone 20016, was one of the guests. He said he foresees problems for Ventura's replacement.

"He's a different caliber of mailman," Hawkins said. "Others starting out today are usually only concerned with payday."

Ventura agreed that times have changed.

"The younger fellows lack the esprit de corps that was common in the old days," he said. "The people on the route pay our salary, and should be served conscientiously. They are more than just friends to me - they have become family."

Loyalty to his "family" is one of Ventura's trademarks. "Once a few years back I was having some trouble with my feet, so I was given a new route that involved less walking - some apartment buildings on Massachusetts Avenue. There was no one to talk to or drink coffee with during the day.

"After three days of misery, I asked my boss for my old route back. He told me that, according to the rules, I Would have to wait 30 days.I threatened to take a 30-day leave. He made an exception," Ventura said.

Old habits seem to die hard with Ventura. He already has a new job in a hardware store. And a new problem.

"I can't shake the old work clock habit," he said ruefully. "Every morning, I still wake up at four o'clock."