Unruh earned Durham’s stamp of approval over 30 years

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Lila Unruh has handled many stamps in her 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service, but the most important one may be the stamp of approval that patrons of Durham have bestowed on her over those years.

Unruh will stamp her final postmark this Friday as she retires as the postmaster at Durham.

“Lila’s been a very helpful person,” said Davie Hein, owner of Hein Automotive in Durham. “Everyone in Durham will miss the service of having a full-time post office, and we’re really going to miss her as the postmaster.”

Unruh said she was happy at home raising her family, and wasn’t really looking for work in 1973-when, incidentally, a first-class stamp cost 8 cents.

“I got started under protest,” Unruh said with a laugh. “The postmaster needed a helper and wanted to go on vacation, and I got talked into it.”

Unruh and husband Gary, a self-employed construction worker, have two grown sons and six grand-children.

“When I started, I wasn’t a civil-service employee, but within three weeks, I was phased into that,” she said.

Over the years, Unruh has done almost every job the postal service could throw at her.

“I’ve done all the regular jobs, from post-marking mail to putting mail in boxes and delivering packages.”

But patrons say it’s the attention to detail and customer service where Unruh goes far beyond the call of duty-mostly because of the high number of retired citizens in town.

“I have a timer, and I have some elderly people call me to tell me when they’ll be here so I watch for them out front,” she said. “When I see them pull up, I take their mail out so they don’t have to get out of their vehicle. I don’t like to make them have to get out, whether it’s cold, hot or rainy.”

Unruh took over as postmaster in October 1984. Before that, she also helped in the offices at Lehigh and Hillsboro on an as-needed basis.

“I used to have a PMR (postmaster relief), but on occasion, I’ve been without one for a couple years,” she said. “I can’t get sick when I don’t have a PMR. I’ve felt very sick on occasion, but if I don’t have relief help, I still have to come in.”

Over the years, Unruh has had five people serve in the capacity of PMR: Paula Rhodes, Avis Rader, Ginger Hoffner, Fiennes Jantz and Marty Hoffner.

“They were all very helpful,” said said.

In addition to changes in PMRs over the years, USPS polices have changed, too.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in the last 30 years is the attitude of the post office,” she said. “It used to be a very relaxed atmosphere in the organization.

“I’d hear from my supervisor only once or twice a year, whereas now we have papers-bunches of papers-that I have to fill out,” she added.

“A lot of our changes have to go through Wichita, and I think if we could do it more personally, we could put a lot more into it.”

Unruh said the volume of mail through coming the Durham office has decreased over the years, a trend she attributes to a decline of residents and the rise of computers.

“There are a lot of payments made on-line, in part because people feel safer paying that way and they don’t have to worry about things getting lost,” she said. “People also do a lot of e-mails that cut down on personal letters.”

But for all the paperwork and regulations Unruh has had to wade through, she looked forward to coming to work because of the people of Durham.

“There are so many people who have been good to me and become close friends,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll miss them a lot.

Unruh said the post office also serves as a community center of sorts.

“I have several people who are alone and come in just to talk,” she said. “I may be the only person some of these people talk to all day.”

Unruh said over the years, numerous people have made her days go quicker by bringing her treats.

“Ginger Becker is a good one for bringing me goodies,” she said. “She bakes cookies at Christmas and there are lots of others that bring things in, too.”

While Unruh welcomed food her patrons delivered to her, she did recall one time when food caused a problem.

“When I first started here, there was a lady who moved here from Kentucky,” Unruh said. “Her mother sent her something that was supposed to have been refrigerated, and it stank so bad you couldn’t stand it.”

Other deliveries, though, have brought a smile to her face.

“I like it when I get to deliver baby chicks,” she said. “That’s always a fun thing.”

Her career at the post office will end Friday, but Unruh said she has plenty of things to occupy her time.

“I’d like to spend more time with my grandkids,” she said. “And I really want to get into making quilts.”

Unruh is afraid her husband might have a job or two waiting for her, too.

“We’re going to Louisiana at the end of August to put a sun room on our pastor’s house,” she said. “I’m sure Gary is looking forward to me being his gofer. But I’ll be glad to spend more time with him.”

Another job waiting for Unruh is the task of washing dishes.

“When I started this job, Gary said he’d do the dishes to help me out,” she said.

“He’s kept that promise for 30 years. I guess I better take my turn now.”

Unruh said the thing she’ll miss the most about her job is a duty she’s done every day, a duty she takes very seriously.

“I’ll miss putting up the flag every morning,” she said. “I have never minded that no matter what the weather was.

“I’m proud to be an American,” she added. “When I say the flag salute, I just feel like saying ‘amen.'”

With retirement less than a week away, Unruh will begin saying her final goodbyes and canceling her final parcels.

“I love these people and this has been a very enjoyable experience,” she said.

“The people have been kind to me and I’ll miss them.”

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