Emily Moriarty remembers only that it was dark; the empty, lonely darkness that sets in and blankets a house during a harsh winter storm. Her electricity was out, as was her heat. But shortly after 8:30 p.m., a loud knock sounded on her door in North Arlington.
There stood Gene Stewart, her mail carrier, with a package of batteries for her flashlights.
"He's just the kindest man. He's done all sorts of things for me," Moriarty, 80, said. "He walks to all the houses to make sure everyone is all right."
But Stewart, 61, is tired of walking. During his 41 years as a mail carrier, he has walked an average of 15 miles a day. At five days a week, about 50 weeks a year, his slender, athletic legs have walked more than 150,000 miles. And after more than four decades of service, though it devastates Moriarty and the others on his delivery route, his legs are finally halting.
Yesterday, to show their appreciation and to lament their loss, neighborhood residents threw a retirement party for Stewart at the Washington Boulevard home of Connie and Bill Scruggs. With the Washington Redskins' game playing on television, children running through the house and cups of apple cider in most hands, the neighbors' giddy laughter and their fond remembrances of Stewart filled the house.
Like the time he set his mailbag down and helped Margaret Knolls carry her new picnic table to the back yard. Or the time he roused the neighbors and encouraged them to visit a dying woman. And how he simply took the time to know about the people he served and treat them as individuals, always pausing to say hello, to offer a kind word -- "You're looking great today, Mrs. Cooper." "How was your vacation, Mr. Horvath?" -- before continuing.
Stewart, with his old-fashioned kindness and his easy, soft-spoken greetings, is somewhat of a legend in this neighborhood that has been his route since 1977.
"One time I was sick, and Gene was the first one knocking on my door to see if I was all right," Moriarty said. "He's just exceptionally kind, and I'm not sure I'll ever run into someone that kind again."
Sally Horvath, 51, agreed.
"I just hope he's mentoring his replacement," she said, laughing.
It's apparent that Stewart dotes on the elderly residents, and the way they speak of him, you would think he hung the moon.
"I just think he's one of the best people I've ever known," said Joanna Cooper, 80. "He would make second trips to make sure I'd get my mail, and he'd bring me stamps when I needed them."
Stewart, who turns away when being complimented, said he never did anything for anybody that warrants all this attention.
"I never saved anyone's life or anything," he said. "It's just about being a good neighbor. It goes with the job." He doesn't have any specific plans for retirement; he just wants to sit things out for a while.
Stewart, who lives in East Falls Church, began his career in 1958 when mail was sorted by hand, rather than by the elaborate machines that now sift through letters in seconds. He has seen a lot of changes in the United States Postal Service, he said, and although he's sad to retire, he knows it's finally time.
"My right leg was starting to tell me," he said. "But I'm going to miss everyone. A lot of these people I've bonded with, like I know things they would never tell anyone. That happens when you deliver someone's mail for so many years."
Jan Denny, 68, said it is not a mail carrier she's losing, "but a great friend."
Lou Lawrence, 83, who set his watch by Stewart's delivery time (yes, he was really that punctual), will miss Stewart's cheery face.
But Stewart said he promises to keep in touch. And several women in the neighborhood, who walk a few miles each morning, are working hard to hold him to his vow, hoping he'll join them for their daily exercise.
"Even though my legs hurt me, I have to keep walking," he said. "I've been walking so many years that if I stop now, I'll just drop down and die."