Neighbors in a Winfield subdivision gave their retiring letter carrier, Tom Nemec, a remarkable gift Monday.
It wasn't the bottle of champagne or the handwritten cards left in seemingly every mailbox. It wasn't even the sculpture of a golden retriever for Nemec, perhaps the only dog whisperer who works for the U.S. Postal Service.
No, the most precious gift Nemec received was the realization that he can end his career of nearly 30 years this week knowing he made a difference and touched more than a few lives.
Nowhere was that more evident on his 553-home route than in the Winfield Estates subdivision, where folks took time off work to put the finishing touches on a surprise send-off that left Nemec overwhelmed.
"It's tough. You say goodbye to one friend if they move away, and that's something," he said. "But lose 500 and some in one day? It's real tough."
Residents have left him baked goods and gift cards for Christmas, but his farewell had to be different.
"I want him to know how much he is appreciated and loved, not only by our family but our neighborhood," said Jan Day, one of the organizers.
The celebration became a unifying event in a subdivision that looked like the scene of a block party Monday. Balloons, posters and tinsel decorated mailboxes for a postal carrier who has delivered mail to the neighborhood since 1988.
"He's more than that," Day said. "He's just a friend to all."
To Linda Croft, he was the good Samaritan who came to her aid during an emergency two years ago. Croft's golden retriever, Chloe, had collapsed in her foyer from what she later learned was a ruptured spleen.
Nemec happened to be outside her home on his route when Croft screamed for help.
"'It's Chloe.' That's all I had to say, and he came running up to the front door," Croft said.
Nemec calmly told a distraught Croft to get a blanket to wrap around Chloe and helped her carry the 90-pound dog to her SUV.
Croft rushed her to the vet's office, where Chloe would have to be put to sleep. But Croft got two hours to say goodbye, and for that, she's "indebted forever" to Nemec.
He in turn gave her a sympathy card -- just one of his kind gestures over the years.
"Who does that? He's so thoughtful," Croft said. "He's just so thoughtful of everybody."
Croft reciprocated Monday with a warm embrace and the sculpture for Nemec "in memory of all the dogs that have loved" him over the years.
"You took care of us, so we wanted to take care of you," Croft told Nemec before snapping some pictures with him and her two goldens, Spencer and Jenny.
The neighborhood dogs adore Nemec so much that they wait in driveways for his truck. Maybe it's because he spoils pooches with treats. Day thinks Nemec, once the owner of three golden retrievers, has earned their affection for another reason.
"His compassion even for pets -- they sense that," Day said. "They feel that."
Their human companions sense that, too.
"He really has that ability to communicate and get to know you as a person," Day said. "In this day and age, that's very uncommon. Everybody's busy and moving quickly and trying to get their job done, so Tom somehow is able to do it all."
Before he became a postal carrier, Nemec had some movie credits on his resume. He worked security on the set of "The Blues Brothers" until a casting director spotted him and gave him a bit part. That led to a role as a SWAT team member in "Risky Business" and a scene opposite Roger Moore in "The Naked Face."
When movie sets would eventually move to Canada because of tax breaks, Nemec said, his brother-in-law, a mailman, suggested he take the postal exam.
His approach to the job?
"Just give everybody the best service that they could have and be friends with everybody," Nemec said.
After his last route Friday, Nemec plans to "take it easy" and may move from St. Charles to somewhere warm.
Croft knows no one could replace Nemec, but she hopes his successor at least loves dogs.
"We're going to miss him terribly," Croft said.