NANTICOKE — They hand-deliver information in the internet age and are the only contact some people have with the outside world. They can seem faceless and nameless — blue-suited representatives of an unknowable system.
Or one of them can be your friend.
That often was the case with postal worker Joe Lloyd, 69, of Nanticoke, who was buried in his uniform earlier this winter, a bottle of whiskey at his feet – a gift from a friend on his route.
In November, Lloyd was honored for 45 years of service to the post office. He was known as “the mayor of West Nanticoke” because he saw more of the area each day than most people see in their lifetimes, and he always knew what was happening.
Appropriately, this story started with a letter.
‘One of its best’
Fran Spencer was a mail carrier in the Nanticoke Post Office from 1990 until 1996, when she broke her ankle and became a clerk. She retired in 2010. Shortly after learning of Lloyd’s death, she emailed a letter to the editor to the Times Leader.
“The United States Postal Service has lost one of its best,” the letter began. “I worked with Joe Lloyd for 20 years and never knew a more dedicated, devoted individual.”
Lloyd died Jan. 25 at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. According to his obituary, he was preceded in death by his wife, Irene (Judge) Lloyd, and his infant twin brother, John, and is survived by three siblings: Maryalice James of Edwardsville, John Leo Lloyd of Pittston, and Barbara Walton of Larksville.
“His whole life was the post office,” James said. “And it showed. He didn’t take care of himself, obviously. He took care of everybody else.”
A consistent refrain about her brother from all who knew him was that “he had one foot in the bed, one foot on the floor and his hand on the telephone, ready to answer the call.”
“He was definitely dedicated,” said Frank Rafalko, the Nanticoke postmaster. “He would be here in like 15 minutes ready to go. He really loved his job.”
Rafalko said Lloyd’s co-workers began noticing he was losing weight at the start of last summer. In November, around the time he received his award for 45 years of service, he began leaving his route early and missing work, the latter of which had happened only once before, Rafalko noted.
In early January, Lloyd complained of a “bad chest cold” and asked for an ambulance one day while he was home, James said. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors confirmed he had colon cancer. On Jan. 23, he suffered a series of three heart attacks, was resuscitated and put on life support.
Two days later, he was gone.
‘Could’ve been … anything’
Lloyd did his job and did it well, but more than that, he impacted the people around him, according to those who knew him best.
We make so much of accomplishment and success in life that those who don’t aspire to fame and wealth are said to live “ordinary lives.” We forget that to be human is to be given opportunities to be kind, to nourish life, to make another’s burden easier to bear.
If you peel back the layers, you discover some interesting things about Joe Lloyd.
He was born in Kingston and went to Larksville High School, where he excelled in football and basketball and made the honor roll. One story recounts that, after games, his liked his shower water so cold that others didn’t go near him for fear of being hit by the chilly spray.
When Joe was 14, his mother died, leaving him and his sister Maryalice in charge of their younger siblings. Their alcoholic father was physically present but functionally unavailable, according to Walton, his sister.
“The old man wasn’t around too much,” John Lloyd said. “(Joe) was an all-scholastic basketball player his junior year and couldn’t even go out for the team his senior year because he had to go out and get a job because he had to support us.”
John said his brother “could’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, or anything.”
Joe could have gone to college but instead stayed behind to help take care of the family before enlisting in the Army. After he left the military he joined the post office.
During his first two years on the job, in Hazleton, Lloyd delivered mail to the home of Jack Palance, the actor known for his portrayals of cowboys, gangsters, vampires and Curly Washburn from the “City Slickers” movie series. Famously, Palance dropped down and did a set of one-handed push-ups on stage when he won the 1992 Oscar for best supporting actor.
He was 73 at the time.
“He did say he was a nice guy, down to earth,” James said of her brother’s interactions with Palance.
Lloyd cared for his wife, Irene, during a protracted illness and for his mother-in-law in recent years, something his sister said was further evidence of his patience and selflessness.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night,” goes the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, taken from the James A. Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, a nod to the mail carrier’s unwavering consistency.
The quote, which was translated for the building, comes from an account of the Persian Wars by the Greek historian Herodotus. The Persians operated a system of mounted couriers on horseback, a basic concept that continues today. Despite the advent of modern vehicles and high-tech sorting machines, people still carry the mail, often on foot.
Karen Mazurkiewicz has worked for the Postal Service for 30 years, most recently as the public relations officer for Central Pennsylvania. She said the mail carrier’s job has changed in subtle ways over the past 10 or 15 years.
Today, sorting mail takes much less time with the help of machines. As a result, carriers spend more time on their routes, especially delivering packages – a part of the job that has increased exponentially with the growth of online retailers.
“The boom in packages means that carriers have taken on a lot more physically than even 10 years ago,” Mazurkiewicz said.
Postal workers can “bid” on routes based on their seniority. The longer a carrier has been in the service, the more options he or she has. Some routes are easier than others. But some postal carriers elect to stay on the same routes for virtually their entire careers. When that happens, those carriers become a part of their communities.
“Wedding, funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, they get invited to these events,” Mazurkiewicz said. “They become not just a public servant but a part of your life.”
After his two years in Hazleton, Lloyd delivered mail in Nanticoke for 40 years, including the final 30 years of his life in West Nanticoke. His military service counted for three years of postal work.
The comments section of Lloyd’s obituary is filled with stories about his interaction with customers, including memories of him sitting on the steps and talking with them, as well as his requests for pumpkin cookies at the holidays.
Many of Lloyd’s friends and acquaintances described him as a George Bailey-type figure from the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The only difference is that Lloyd never complained about staying in his hometown, according to Walton.
“I didn’t realize it was to that extent until the funeral,” she said. “These people were crying their eyes out like he was family. I didn’t even know who my mailman was.”
Spencer, the woman who wrote the letter to the Times Leader about Lloyd, said their relationship began rather inauspiciously. Lloyd was known as a jokester and often would tease Spencer, especially in his early days on the job. But after she saw how dedicated he was to his profession, she grew to appreciate his consistency and to understand his sense of humor.
“He knew how to get under people’s skin, but you could set your clock by him,” she said. “I really came to admire that.”
His consistency was outdone only by his humanity.
According to his sister Maryalice, Joe would ring a customer’s doorbell if he was delivering medicine; he wanted his folks to know immediately that the potentially life-saving package was there.
The great beyond
Judith Nowak is a former nurse and grief counselor. She and her husband, Edward, reside in the same development where Joe Lloyd lived. She is responsible for the bottle of whiskey in his casket.
There’s a story behind that, too.
Lloyd began delivering mail to Nowak’s family on East Grove Street while she was in nursing school. On the morning of her wedding, Lloyd brought the results from her state board examination. He continued to deliver mail to the Nowaks through all 44 years of their marriage, until this past Christmas, when he didn’t show up for his appointed rounds.
Several years ago, Nowak began a tradition of giving Lloyd a present for Christmas, often a bottle of wine or liquor. She already had purchased his latest gift when she found out he had passed away. She asked Lloyd’s sisters if she could leave the bottle with him.
Nowak said it brings her comfort to know that Lloyd is holding it in the great beyond, a party favor for whomever he meets there.
“They’ll say, ‘Hey, Joe brought the good stuff,’” she said.