The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Not all heroes wear capes. Some carry the mail.

Mitchell Rivas becomes emotional while being introduced during the National Association of Letter Carriers Hero of the Year Awards ceremony in Washington. After his own 2-year-old daughter died of congenital heart failure, Rivas, a mail carrier in Cleveland, started a charitable foundation helping medically fragile children and their families. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

If you’ve read about the U.S. Postal Service recently, chances are it hasn’t been pleasant news.

The agency is hemorrhaging money, headlines say. The first female postmaster general, Megan Brennan, will retire in January after reportedly drawing President Trump’s ire. Pundits wonder whether the Postal Service has become obsolete. Delivery drones hover ominously on the horizon.

But it was all smiles, chatter and good cheer on Wednesday in the Hyatt Regency Hotel ballroom where the National Association of Letter Carriers hosted a luncheon to remind everyone in attendance that some heroes wear blue button-downs.

“Letter carriers are the eyes and ears of our communities,” said Christina Davidson, director of the NALC’s Letter Carrier Heroes program and a former letter carrier herself. “We’re everywhere.”

Austin Rentz was in Waterloo, Iowa. His ears heard an unusual beeping sound coming from a house on his route — which happened to belong to the mother of his boss, the Waterloo postmaster. His eyes saw smoke billowing out of the front door. Rentz ran inside to make sure the woman was okay (she was). He opened windows and turned off the stove, which was burning some leftover food.

Chances are, you don’t think of your neighborhood letter carrier as a hero, if you even think of them at all. You might even regard them warily, depending on how much “Seinfeld” you watch. (“Hello, Newman”) The most common pop-culture cliche about mail carriers is that they are victims — specifically, of encounters with territorial family dogs. (Don’t worry, that joke was made at the luncheon, too.)

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Mark Schuh, a mail carrier in Evansville, Ind., wasn’t the victim of canine aggression; he was the peacemaker. Schuh was on his route when he saw a pit bull attack a beagle and its owner. Schuh reached into his satchel pulled out his dog repellent (yes, some people who carry the mail also carry that). Eventually, the pit bull retreated. The beagle needed three days at the vet and its owner needed stitches, but both survived.

The NALC, which represents city delivery letter carriers employed by the Postal Service, has been recognizing “heroes” for 45 years. Heroic deeds were — and still are — a feature of the union’s monthly membership magazine, the Postal Record. Awardees started getting invited to receptions like this in 1985. Each year, a panel of judges determines which outstanding letter carriers will receive top honors.

On Wednesday afternoon, a mishmash of postal union members and leaders, agency officials and businesspeople gathered to feast on steak, bread, coffee and cake and listen to speeches underlining the idea that postal workers remain essential to American life.

“A police chief mentions the help provided or a grateful family writes a letter to the local newspaper,” said NALC President Fred Rolando. “We hardly ever learn about the event from the letter carrier who was involved.”

Like Ivan Crisostomo, a mail carrier in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, who encountered a 16-year-old girl named Crystal, cowering behind a tree. She had just fled men who had kidnapped her and tortured her for three months. Pointing to her arm, she told Crisostomo, “They were putting things in me.”

There were gasps in the ballroom as Rolando, the union president, recounted the girl’s words onstage. Some people covered their mouths.

“Don’t worry,” the mail carrier had told her. “Nobody is going to get you. I’m here for you.”

He helped Crystal call her mother, Stacy, who then called 911. He stayed with Crystal until emergency responders arrived.

“It’s the human response,” Crisostomo told The Washington Post. (How would a drone have responded?)

Regarding the Postal Service’s supposed struggles, few at the gathering even accepted the premise, and were willing to say little or nothing about it on the record. One person cited recent Pew or Gallup data suggesting the Postal Service is the country’s most popular federal agency.

That talk of obsolescence? “That’s stupid,” Rentz told The Post. “We interact with people every day. I haven’t felt underappreciated.”

A mail carrier in Georgia retired. Strangers across social media celebrated — and they’re sending him to Hawaii.

Appreciation was in full supply at the ceremony. The gasps, sighs and standing ovations never felt perfunctory. The postal community, active and retired, rocked the ballroom.

Theresa Jo Belkota, of Buffalo, wasn’t on the clock when she heard someone cry out, “Call 911!” She ran out of her house and into the yard next door, where she found her cousin’s son bleeding profusely from his foot. His father had accidentally run him over with the lawn mower. Belkota wrapped the boy’s leg with her shirt to apply pressure to his femoral artery, something she’d seen someone do on “Law & Order: SVU” once. They waited for a medevac together; the boy lost the foot, but kept his life. Belkota chalked it up to divine intervention.

Accepting her award, she paused, appearing to get choked up. “Thank you for being patient,” she said. Belkota didn’t consider herself a hero, or even much of an orator. Just a mailcarrier.

“I’m just so happy,” she said, “to have this job.”