Back when the kids were still little and the first front lawns were sprouting in the College Park housing tract, folks remember Lee Hafer ambling up their brand new driveways with the day's mail. Original owners joke that their beefy, ruddy mailman came with the mortgage.
Precise as always, Hafer, 55, sets the record straight. He took over the 10-mile route full time in 1965, six years after the tract was built. Before that he substituted on the regular mailman's day off.
Few civil servants make Hafer's lasting impression. For years residents showed their affection by leaving a glass of ice water next to the mailbox. When word got out he was retiring, they organized parties and took up a collection because, as one resident said, "Lee is a once-in-a-lifetime mailman."
Residents care about Hafer for old time's sake, but he has done a lot more to win their hearts than just get the mail through for 21 years. He has admired a new fence, sympathized over skinned knees and dropped Popsicles, and let the kids push his three-wheeled mail cart.
Holds the Mail
Like any good mailman, he keeps track of who is going on vacation. But if someone forgets to tell him, he figures it out for himself and holds onto their mail. And once they get back he always wants to know how the trip was.
Hafer professes to know the name of everyone in every house on the block, save one, and those folks moved in less than a year ago. He remembers who's graduating, who has a cousin visiting from Pennsylvania, who has a worrisome pain.
He even calls the dogs by name.
Every child in the tract seems to be Hafer's special friend. Several weeks back, a 4-year-old handed him an unstamped sheet of scribbles and directed him to deliver it to a little girl on the next block. He obliged.
Grown-up children invite him to their weddings. Usually, he has to work instead. Once when he did go, nobody recognized him. They had never seen Hafer without his regulation blue cap. Beneath it, Hafer is bald.
"Now every time I run into one of the kids, I have to take my hat off for them," he said.
A couple of weeks ago, Hafer ran into Valerie Williams, who was back to the tract for a visit, and mentioned that he would retire. Now 24, married and living in San Pedro, Williams was one of Hafer's original mail-cart pushers.
Took Up Collection
"I couldn't believe it," said Williams. "I decided I had to do something."
For three hours one weekday afternoon, Williams canvassed her former neighborhood, asking people if they were interested in donating to a collection for Lee. Not one turned her down. A couple of streets over, longtime residents Hazel and Phil Reihm were also taking up a collection. Altogether, the neighbors contributed more than $2,200 to their departing mailman.
Williams organized a picnic at a local park a week and a half ago to honor Hafer. About 300 people came. Long Beach City Councilman Tom Clark attended and presented Hafer with a proclamation signed by the mayor. Two weeks ago, Reihms held a backyard barbecue for Hafer. The party attracted 70 people and lasted six hours.
Hafer, born on a farm in Colorado, said he hopes to retire to his home state. He will still get up at 5:30 every morning, but now he will have time to play with his grandchildren, work in the yard and learn to play golf. No more slogging through the rain on soggy days, no more cramming letters into tobacco-tin-sized mail-boxes, no more Christmas-card mania. Just thinking about it, he grins.
Part of the Family
But he expects to miss the folks on his route. "I feel like they're part of my family," he said. "The nicest people in Long Beach live there."
After 21 years together, Hafer and his friends are full of memories. When a terrified teen-ager surprised a would-be burglar in her parents' house, Hafer was delivering mail across the street. He remembers checking to make sure the intruder was gone and helping the girl phone the police.
And if the burglar had still been there?
"That would have depended on how big he was, and whether or not he was armed," said Hafer.
Sue Reihm, whose parents planned the barbecue, remembers Hafer spraying the family dog with tear gas spray a couple of times. No hard feelings there, though. "The dog deserved it," Reihm said.
Paul Keever, now a 25-year-old car repossessor, is one of several young people who remember spiriting away Hafer's mail push-cart and stashing it behind bushes at the edge of his parents' lot.
"He'd come out and joke around with you and say where's the cart," Keever said. "If you weren't smiling when he got there, you'd be smiling when he left."