Neither rain, nor snow, nor testy dogs, could discourage Bill Haines from making his appointed rounds - mostly on foot - five days a week as a postal carrier for more than 42 years.
Wearing his trademark smile, Haines, tall, lithe and trim, would move like a dervish, driven by an infectious enthusiasm to serve an estimated 600 customers every day.
For many, he became a dependable friend, a welcome part of their daily lives. That part of his life came to an end May 22, when the 61-year-old Haines took his last sprint and turned in his mail bag, beginning a two-week vacation leading up to June 1, his official retirement date.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Joe Blankenship
Bill Haines exits his truck during one of the last times he would deliver his route as a United States Postal Service carrier. Haines served for more than 42 years before he retired in May.
Fellow postal workers gathered for an informal farewell at the Elkins Post Office to wish him luck and to express sometimes tearful sentiments.
"Women were crying, saying they would miss me. That really meant a lot," Haines said.
Elkins Postmaster Dave Hamrick tried to speak for them all, though he found it difficult to finish his speech.
"It was bittersweet to see him go," Hamrick said of Haines. "He was always cheerful, enthusiastic, easygoing and very dependable, just a good person to be around. Bill thought a lot about his customers and his responsibility to deliver their mail on time. He also cared about his co-workers and was always concerned that all the routes were covered. When another carrier wasn't available to cover a route, Bill would work on his days off, no questions asked."
Hamrick presented Haines with a "Million Mile" jacket for safe driving - he never had a single traffic accident during his rounds - and a certificate for his years of service. A formal dinner is being planned in his honor.
Haines' work ethic reflects the well-known postman's creed: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
He recalls the last day on his route as the "worst and best" of his career. Word that he was retiring spread quickly through the neighborhoods.
"People came out shouting, 'What are we going to do? ... They'll never find anyone who can replace you!'"
A typical response came from Sandra Donaldson, one of Haines' morning customers on Kerens Avenue.
"We want him back! He was just wonderful, always had a smile and a good temperament. And, every day, he would bring a biscuit for my dog, Buffy. She loved him to death and would wait for him on the front steps to get her biscuit." Donaldson said.
Ron Cochran, second assistant chief at the Elkins Fire Department, said, "Bill's just a great guy. I've been here for 18 years and I always looked forward to seeing him. He could always make you laugh and feel better about the day."
The staff at Quality Care Management on Bernard Avenue was anxiously waiting for him.
"I went in there," Haines said, "and they had a walker all done up with balloons and an air horn, with a sign that said, 'Caution, Retired Postal Carrier.' They told me to take it home, said I might need it some day.
"And when I got to the Women's Health Care office, they gave me a bag of adult diapers. Hey, I may need those someday, too," he said, with a hearty laugh.
Haines' postal career began in 1969 in Alexandria, Va., when he was hired at age 17 just after graduation from T.C. Williams High School.
"When the Post Office Department hired me that summer, I couldn't even drive a truck until September when I turned 18 and got my license."
In 1980, at age 29, he was told of an opening at the Elkins Post Office by fellow carrier and area native, Ed Cross, who had returned home to accept another job. Haines immediately applied for the position and was hired as a Technical 6, a carrier who covers a route on another carrier's day off. This marked the beginning of his 32-year career in Elkins.
Early on, he developed a reputation for his speedy and purposeful stride.
"The young guys often told me, 'We can't keep up with you ... we'd need roller skates.' That was one thing I had to consider when it came to retirement. I have to be on the go, on the move. need to be doing something all the time."
In 1991, he got his own route, a far-flung area of seven to eight miles that covered parts of downtown, then meandered north through a vast stretch of neighborhoods. Working on foot, he would begin his rounds at 9:30 a.m., stopping first at the Elkins Fire Department on Fourth Street, and proceeding up Fourth Street to Kerens Avenue. From there, he would sprint up Randolph and Harrison avenues to Davis Memorial Hospital, then head toward the area of Speedway convenience store. Haines then continued deliveries on Pleasant, Capitol, Orchard, George and Gilmore streets and Ervin Lane. By 4 p.m., he would reach the finish line at the four-way stop on Wilson Street.
Every day at noon, he would break to meet his wife, Linda Kimble Haines, and relax over lunch at Scotties Restaurant or Fox's Pizza Den. Linda Haines is retired after working for 22 years at Kroger bakery.
At first, he didn't use a truck because he thought it would be a nuisance.
"Then, they tried to figure out how many miles I walked, and finally, in 2001, they gave me this brand new truck so I could deliver my packages. The vehicle had only three miles on the odometer, but it didn't go every place I did. I'd just park on a corner and run a block delivering the mail, then drive to the next block. I actually liked it better when I walked out the back door of the post office in the morning and walked back in at night."
From 2001 until the day he retired, based on the truck's odometer reading, Haines estimates that he walked about 28,000 miles.
Haines does admit there were occasional on-the-job annoyances.
"There were people who just liked to complain, and I always followed up on those complaints 100 percent. You always have people like that," he said. "They have to nitpick about something. One guy complained that I didn't get to his house 'til 3 o'clock on check day - after the banks closed. My boss told him, 'You live toward the end of the route. There's a beginning and an end, you know.'
"Another man, who wasn't even on my route, complained about where I parked at the library. He took a picture of my truck and reported me. We talked to the people at the library and the city police at City Hall. They didn't have any problem with where I parked; I'd parked in the same place for years."
Like people who enjoy complaining, dogs have barked and snarled at mail carriers since time immemorial. But Haines learned how to handle both.
"I never had many problems with dogs, because I always carried doggie biscuits," he said. "I'd make friends with them. They'd see the biscuit and usually that's all it took."
Regardless, Haines says he liked his route and the people - and the dogs.
"Customers make such a big difference," he said. "Sometimes they'd offer me food, coffee or cold drinks, but once I left the post office in the morning I didn't drink much, because I'd have to find a restroom - and that wastes time."
Occasionally, he was "written up" for rule violations.
"Mail carriers aren't allowed to go in people's houses, period," he explained. "But there were two ladies on Wilson Street who had trouble walking, and for years I'd open their doors and lay the mail on a table. Of course, they had to write me up for it, because I wasn't supposed to do that, but I didn't care. I was still going to do it."
The worst part of his job was the weather - from sweltering heat in summer or to the blustering cold of winter.
"You're expected go out and work every day. And when I trained somebody, that's what I'd tell them. I'd also remind them that, even though you have sick leave, you don't call in sick just because you don't feel good."
Haines credits his father, the late Harold Haines, for giving him a moral compass and the enduring sense of responsibility that he brought to his job every day.
"My father greatly influenced me and my brother, Harold, and sister, Dorothy. He always emphasized that when somebody is paying you to do a job, you give them that time."
Influenced by their religious principles, Haines' parents exacted some rather strict rules for the family, including restrictions of social activities enjoyed by other teens.
"We weren't allowed to go to dances, not even the senior prom. I could play sports as long as they didn't interfere with those Wednesday night prayer services," he said. "I remember being punished sometimes, but I deserved it. Now, when I look back on it, I realize my parents brought me up to be the person I am today, and that's to treat people kindly and go out and do my job."
William Paul Haines was born on Sept. 24, 1951, in Homesdale, Pa., near Scranton, a son of the late Harold and Sophie Haines. The family moved to Virginia when his father, a Baptist preacher, was called to serve a church in Alexandria. Many people in Elkins knew Haines' father and, following his retirement from the ministry, he preached several times at Calvary Baptist Church in Elkins.
Haines is proud of his own family and looks forward to spending more quality time with them. His stepdaughter, Stacia McDonald, chose to follow in his footsteps as a mail carrier. She has walked the Elkins downtown route for seven years. His oldest grandson, Brandon Isenhart, 21, previously carried the mail in Shinnston. Haines' daughter from his first marriage, Crystal Haines, is assistant manager at the Norton Mountaineer Mart. Two other grandchildren include Laken Brook McDonald, 14, and Ben McDonald 12.
"People ask me how it feels to be retired, and I tell them it just feels like I'm on vacation. It'll take a while to adjust," he said.
A bill currently before Congress, if passed, would allow Haines to return to his job on a 20-hour-per-week basis.
"My boss is hoping for that," Haines said, "and while I plan to live to a ripe old age, knowing how slow Congress moves, I told him I can't wait (to go back to work) until I'm 90."
- Mary McMahon is a former newspaper reporter and director of public relations at Davis & Elkins College. Currently, she teaches piano and is a freelance journalist living in Elkins. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.