Longtime Worker Puts Her Stamp on Post Office

By Cathy Lickteig Makofski Special to  The Washington Post  Jun 5, 2003.

The tiny post office on Auto Drive in Clarksville seems almost overwhelmed by the explosion of new townhouses and businesses and the rush of traffic outside. But inside, amid fresh flowers and yellow bows honoring U.S. troops, customers exchange stories about their families, schools and vacations. Postal clerk Norma Spicer knows the name of nearly everyone in the lobby.

“Norma is the Clarksville post office,” said Evelyn Buldoc, a 30- year resident of Clarksville. “She’s a sweetheart and very well qualified.”

Spicer is a 34-year veteran of post office work and is the only full-time employee at Clarksville. She works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, with a two-hour midday break, and sometimes on Saturday. “I unlock the door in the morning and lock it again when I go home at night, and everything in between is my responsibility,” said Spicer, 57, who has a long silver and gray braid.

Along with four part-time clerks, she handles more than 400 mail transactions a day. In addition, they tape packages, correct addresses and Zip codes, explain how to use a vacation mail card, and answer the phone. Overall, the post office generates about $13,000 a week in walk-in revenue.

“We’re very busy, and the good thing is that we all work as a team,” Spicer said.

Customers praise Spicer for her attentiveness and empathy. “Norma has motherly qualities . . . caring, considerate and kind,” Paul Radziewicz, 46, an automobile salesman and regular customer said.

She is also an unofficial welcoming committee.

“When new people move into the area, the post office is usually the first stop they make. I try to let them know that we will do everything we can to get their mail service set up as quickly as possible,” Spicer said. “This is the first chance I have to greet new people and to establish a friendly relationship.”

She shares information about local shops, churches and attractions such as the azalea gardens at Brighton Dam. But newcomers are not the only ones who benefit from Spicer’s wealth of knowledge. “She told me how to get to the dump, and even predicted the number of snowfalls during the winter of 2003 — and was only off by one,” Sue Andersen, 47, of Clarksville said.

For other customers, Spicer explains the procedures for getting a passport at the main post office on Oak Hall Lane in Columbia. She also provides names and locations of nearby photographers who take passport pictures.

Ionnie Butler, 52, lives in the Clarksville area and uses the post office frequently. She admires the gracious way in which Spicer deals with people. “We all want that special treatment that Norma provides,” Spicer said.

Brides often seek Spicer’s advice about which postage stamp would look best with the colors and styles of their wedding invitations. When there is enough time, she offers to hand cancel the invitations to ensure that the envelopes and stamps look as attractive as possible. “It doesn’t take long to make someone happy, especially for a major event in their life,” she said.

Born in southwest Virginia the ninth of 11 children, Spicer relocated with her family to the Glenwood-Lisbon area. She is a graduate of Glenelg High School. In l967, Spicer got her first postal job in Ellicott City, along with some advice from a co- worker: Don’t act like you are scared to death; just smile.

“My smile covered a multitude of insecurities,” Spicer said. “I was a shy, backward, reticent person in high school. But I loved my job, and eventually I learned not to be afraid of people.”

In l964 she married William Spicer, who retired but now works part time as a mail carrier. The couple had a son and, in 1972, when a second son was on the way, Norma “retired” to stay at home with the children. That lasted 19 months.

During a staffing emergency at the Clarksville post office, she agreed to be “on loan” from Ellicott City for six weeks. That was 30 years ago, and she’s not ready to retire yet.

The confidence she had acquired while working in the Ellicott City post office was tested her first day in Clarksville. “The woman who was training me went home with pneumonia three hours after I started, leaving me all alone,” Spicer said. “I had to do everything, including closing at the end of the day.”

Regular customers helped by telling her where to find supplies and where to put the outbound mail and packages. That wasn’t the only time that customers have supported her. Nine years ago, Spicer developed breast cancer. She returned to work as soon as she could after surgery and worked throughout her chemotherapy treatment. “Customers sent cards and brought in flowers,” she said. “Their encouragement helped me very much then, and it still does, and I am cancer free.”

Spicer isn’t bothered by an occasional rude customer or an indecisive one mulling over which stamp to purchase. But when someone wants to mail something via “snail mail,” her eyebrows go up and her shoulders go back. Clearly, she’s offended. She’s been known to ask how many times the customer’s Internet service goes down.

“I don’t make derogatory remarks about other businesses, and I don’t appreciate it when people denigrate the service we provide,” Spicer said.

Cell phones also get her dander up. “This post office is just too small to have customers carrying on casual conversations,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t hear my customer if someone is talking loudly.”

If callers don’t get the message when she glares at them, she speaks up: “When you are finished talking, I can wait on you.”

Although Spicer has trained herself to be prepared for the offbeat request, she knows that people retrieving their vacation mail are very predictable. Upon arriving home, they rush to the post office. “Someone almost always says: ‘Give me the good stuff,’ meaning letters and cards. So I ask if they have written to anyone.”

Spicer said everyone hopes to get “good mail,” but few bother to write. “Letters are personal and can be read and reread. They keep people connected,” she reminds patrons.

When asked what design she would put on a postage stamp, Spicer replied:

“Hands. Because hands reach out and help; they touch; they gesture; they write; they connect.”