APEX, N.C. — Sick of junk mail?
Pay homage, then, to overstressed, overworked mailman Steven Padgett, who has confessed to a cardinal sin among the letter carriers tribe: He failed to deliver.
"Mailman Steve" -- a pudgy, kindly 58-year-old who toiled along a route in a rapidly growing neighborhood here -- was given probation in federal court this week for squirreling away at least seven years' worth of undelivered junk mail, which he had stacked in his garage and buried in his yard.
According to his attorney, Padgett felt overwhelmed by the torrents of "direct advertising mail" he was obligated to deliver as he contended with heart problems and diabetes.
It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Postal Service did not receive a single complaint from Padgett's customers about missing mail during the years he withheld pizza circulars, oil change discount notices and Chinese menus.
But when someone noticed bins of mail stacking up, the authorities were alerted, and Mailman Steve was charged with delaying and destroying U.S. mail. The Postal Service notified hundreds of residents, but only one responded. That customer, Kenna Reinhardt, wrote not to condemn Padgett but to honor him.
"Mr. Padgett did not mean harm to any person, rather he overcompensated by doing his job better than anyone," Reinhardt said in the letter, which was entered into the record by U.S. Atty. Josh Howard.
Readers who followed Padgett's travails in the pages of the Raleigh News & Observer responded on behalf of a grateful citizenry. They thanked him for delivering his customers from unwanted mail.
"That 'Mailman Steve' should get a commendation," Doug Kopp, one of hundreds of people who contacted local news media to praise Padgett, said in a call to the paper.
"Steve Padgett for President!" another reader wrote. Others offered to help cover Padgett's legal fees, to nominate him for awards and to ask that he deliver mail in their neighborhoods, the paper reported.
U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III could have sent Padgett to prison for five years and fined him up to $250,000. Instead, the judge gave him three years' probation, fined him $3,000 and ordered 500 hours of community service.
"Today, you'll get credit for a life well lived," the judge told the mailman.
Padgett's efforts to spare the neighbors their junk mail were not much appreciated by the Direct Marketing Assn. The 3,400-member group considers such mail a boon for consumers seeking discounts and services and for small businesses seeking to target customers.
Eight of 10 people actually look at such mail, and a "large percentage" take advantage of coupons and discounts, said Sandy Cutts, the association's public affairs director.
And please don't call it "junk mail," Cutts said. "We don't use the 'J' word."
The Postal Service also did not look kindly on Padgett's failure to deliver the "standard mail," which accounts for half the volume of U.S. mail and a third of the service's revenue. "We don't consider it junk mail," spokesman David Partenheimer said -- just as newspapers don't consider the ads that flutter out of the daily paper to be junk, he added.
To those on his route, Padgett was the antithesis of the scheming, diabolical mailman, Newman, of "Seinfeld" TV fame. In one famous rant, Newman claimed that mailmen embarked on killing rampages because the relentless volume of mail drove them insane.
"Because the mail never stops," the character sputtered. "Every day it piles up more and more, but the more you get out, the more it keeps coming. . . . And then it's Publisher's Clearinghouse day."
Padgett, a grandfather of three, welcomed new residents to his route in burgeoning Apex, outside Raleigh, residents told the News & Observer. He doted on children. He gave treats to dogs and made sure packages were kept dry on porches.
Padgett was brought down by a utility worker who noticed bins stacked several feet high on the back porch of his home in Raleigh. Postal authorities found hundreds of thousands of pieces of undelivered advertising, but no first-class mail such as letters or bills.
"The work ethic that had served him so well . . . may have become his downfall," Andrew McCoppin, Padgett's lawyer, wrote to the court. "If his identity and self-concept was wrapped up in being the 'best mail carrier' for all of his customers and he could no longer succeed in that role, it would have been terribly difficult for him to admit that failing."
The lawyer added: "In a misdirected effort to continue the illusion of the perfect mailman, he covered up his failure in a manner which probably seemed, at the time, to cause the least harm."
In court this week, Padgett apologized to fellow postal carriers for bringing unwarranted scrutiny to their delivery efforts. He also thanked family members and customers along his route. Thirty-two people sent letters of support.
"It buoyed my spirits," the mailman said.
Though Padgett is now out of a job, News & Observer reader Bill Clark proposed a new line of work.
"I'm wondering if Padgett could get a job within the telephone routing network," Clark wrote, "and screen the many calls I also don't care to deal with."