Having traveled the world during his stint in the U.S. Navy, Dave Beebe came home to Elgin 30 years ago thinking he would use the G.I. Bill to learn all he could in college about those newfangled punch cards and the fledgling computer industry. But jobs were hard to find so Beebe took the tests and applied for a job with the U.S. Postal Service.
"I've been a letter carrier for 29 years," Beebe says, his chin held high under the smile on his face. "I take care of my customers."
For 23 of those years, Beebe was a fixture in the Northgate community of Arlington Heights.
"Back then, there was no shade in that place," Beebe says. "Now, all the trees are huge."
Beebe is more than the secretary for National Association of Letter Carriers Local 2810. The Arlington Heights postal worker calls himself an "old-school mailman."
"You get a rapport with people. You see their kids grow up. You see their kids have kids," Beebe says. "They treated me like family."
In his early career, he'd spend the first half of his day manually sorting mail that he'd deliver that afternoon. A typical day might have seen him walk five or six miles while lugging a 30-pound satchel to deliver letters to 300 homes. Now, he says machines sort almost all of the mail, allowing carriers to take on larger routes that might feature twice as many customers. The physical toll led Beebe, now 56, to transfer to his current route, which includes a strip mall and some housing developments. He doesn't walk as many miles, but he delivers more mail during more hours each day.
"I average very close to seven hours a day on the street," he says. He could retire next year, but he's worried about the future of his U.S. Postal Service.
In this age of electronic communication and for-profit delivery services, the volume of U.S. Postal Service mail has dropped 22 percent since its peak in 2006. Just as newspapers, travel agents and other industries have been forced to adapt to this changing world, the post office is considering suggestions such as ending Saturday delivery, closing post offices, laying off letter carriers or even folding up shop.
Beebe, like many others, hails a bill (HR 1351) before Congress as a way to end -- or at least postpone -- the money woes by allowing the post office to no longer adhere to a mandate that it must fully fund pensions for future retirees. The politicians, unions, business community and all of us who still depend on the mail will have a say in the post office's fate, but rooting for the post office seems almost patriotic.
"It's more than patriotic. It's in the Constitution," says communications historian Richard R. John, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and author of the book, "Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse."
"I don't think we realize the consequences of meddling with an institution that is so ingrained in our nation," John says.
Before we got around to declaring our independence as a nation, our Continental Congress appointed Ben Franklin the first postmaster general in 1775. Article 1 of our Constitution grants Congress the power to levy taxes, declare war, mint coins, borrow money and establish post offices and routes.
"There is still and always will be a need for the Postal Service," says Martin H. Malin, professor and director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Malin notes that he uses electric communication for everything from paying bills and filing taxes to editing a scholarly journal and answering inquiries from a newspaper columnist. Those options aren't available for every American or every transfer of information or goods, he says.
"The Post Office is a public service. It is not a business," Malin says. Even after the Post Office became the quasi-governmental U.S. Postal Service, and even though the website is www.usps.com and not .gov, government officials still regulate business decisions such as where it delivers and how much it charges, Malin notes.
These are tough times. Legal battles between unions, public employees and governments are waging in Illinois and across the nation. But John predicts the postal service "will survive" and suggests people, especially conservatives, who want to see the post office go out of business are "lacking in realism."
"They should spend a little more time reading what George Washington and James Madison said about the post office," John says.
The politician who finds a way to save the post office might even follow Washington and Madison by getting his or her mug on a stamp some day.