— Some people dread the days they have to spend at their jobs. They pine for vacation time, squirrel away personal days, dream of retirement.
Not Morris Wilkinson.
At age 91, Wilkinson remains in the habit of clocking in punctually for work. A mailman for the past 64 years, he’s known for being diligent about every aspect of his job. His shoes are always meticulously shined. His hair is always perfectly in place. He’s cordial and courteous, and he’s loath to shirk a single obligation. In fact, he refused to be interviewed for this story until he was off the clock because he had no interest in “wasting time.”
“I like to stay busy,” he explained. “I don’t like to sit around and be idle.”
Wilkinson — who has been a mailman in and around Birmingham, Ala., all these years — was recently honored for his decades of service to the federal government. Before he joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1947, he served in the Marines for six years and fought in the South Pacific during World War II. That brings his total years of service to 70 — a tally that resulted in an emotional ceremony for him where a number of employees couldn’t hold back tears.
“He’s working on his eighth decade of service; it’s that kind of devotion to service that keeps somebody young,” said Joseph Breckenridge, a longtime spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service.
“A lot of people have taken encouragement from his example,” Breckenridge added. “You don’t have to do what’s expected and park your wheelchair on the front porch and sit in it. There are other possibilities.”
Swimming, dining with FDR
Wilkinson has overcome plenty of obstacles in recent years that might have prompted most mere mortals to stop working. He had to undergo knee-replacement surgery when he was 80. He also got hit by a car two years ago. In both instances, he bounced back and returned to his mail route as quickly as he could.
“I feel much better if I get up at the regular time and get dressed and go to work,” Wilkinson said. “It ain’t normal if I don’t. If I sat around at home and didn’t do anything, I would just gain weight and be miserable.”
Wilkinson’s supervisor — Tommy Morrison, the postal service’s branch manager for Center Point, Ala. — described the 91-year-old as a model employee.
“He’s a good one,” Morrison said. “He’s always on time, and he never calls in sick. His shirts and pants are always pressed — no wrinkles — and his shoes are shined just like when he was in the Marines.”
Morrison noted that Wilkinson is a well-known presence in his community, and he genuinely cares about his customers.
“He goes out and makes sure his customers are taken care of,” Morrison said. “Sometimes after work he’ll stop by and check on them. He’s been on this same route more than 40 years, and he takes extra time to make sure they’re OK.”
As astounding as Wilkinson’s 64-year tenure with the U.S. Postal Service is, he’s not the longest-serving mailman in the country. That distinction belongs to Rudy Tempesta, a Chapel Hill, N.C., letter carrier who is in his mid-80s and has been doing his job for 65 years. Like Wilkinson, Tempesta served in World War II. When the war ended, both men sought — and were able to find — steady, dependable work, a notion that’s becoming increasingly unheard of in today’s economy.
In Wilkinson’s case, military service afforded him close contact with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before the United States became embroiled in World War II, Wilkinson was part of a group of Marines assigned to assist the U.S. Secret Service in protecting the president. When Roosevelt would travel from Washington, D.C., to his resort in Warm Springs, Ga. — a spot where FDR doggedly tried to combat his paralysis with hydrotherapy — Wilkinson would travel with him.
“He’d invite us to go swimming with him,” Wilkinson recalled. “His assistants would help him go through the motions of swimming. ... He would also come to the barracks or to the mess hall and eat with us quite a bit.”
During the war, Wilkinson went on to serve with the Marines on different islands in the South Pacific. After two grueling years there, he contracted malaria and got sent back to the States.
“Back then, we had to go by ship, and it would take a week or two weeks to cross the Pacific,” he recalled. “We didn’t get furloughs. They shipped you over there and said, ‘We’ll come back to get you when the war is over.’ I got sick, though. ... Malaria is a terrible disease.”
Military personnel with malaria typically were sent to cold climates to recuperate; Wilkinson got stationed at a naval base in Newport, R.I. Once he recovered and completed his military service, he made his way back to his home state of Alabama and joined the postal service. Not long after that, he proposed to his future wife, Nora. They’ve been married 61 years.
“We don’t plan to get a divorce now,” Wilkinson said, chuckling.
Adapting to changes
Since Wilkinson joined the U.S. Postal Service, much more has changed than the price of stamps. Formerly devout postal customers now share and receive information in high-tech ways that would have been unthinkable back in the 1940s. Such shifts have been impacting the postal service, and mail volumes have been dropping significantly. This spring the agency announced that 7,500 administrative jobs would have to be cut.
These details were not lost on those who attended Wilkinson’s ceremony, and they may have contributed on some level to emotions felt there. On May 31 — one week after the ceremony — hundreds of postal-service employees left their positions or retired early and received buyouts. Breckenridge, the spokesman quoted earlier in this story, was one of them.
“This is the last interview I’m granting here,” Breckenridge said on his final day. “I’ve spent 35 years with the postal service. I might have stayed as long as Mr. Wilkinson, but my job didn’t last.”