After 42 years as a rural mail carrier, Starbuck resident Jim Wesen, 70, has seen a plethora of changes.
The last of his eight vehicles, a metallic blue Buick racked up 320,000 miles. The rear spring of his first car, a 1972 AMC Hornet, broke when he had to distribute 30 bundles of Sears and JCPenny catalogs all in one trip.
First class stamps were once 15 cents, and he watched them rise up to the current 55 cent rate. Newspapers, magazines and letters used to overflow in his backseat, but packages are the primary delivery item in recent years.
And up through his retirement on Feb. 2, he’s kept the same leather messenger bag.
“That old saying about death and taxes, there’s one more thing to include in that and that’s change,” Wesen said. “You can’t stop change. You either gotta adapt to it, or you’re gonna get left behind.”
Balancing the busyness
As he applied for a few social studies teaching positions after graduating from Moorhead State College in 1973, Wesen realized that schools wouldn't pay him much more than what he was already making at Angelina’s in Alexandria. With that in mind, he decided to stay at the restaurant instead of becoming a teacher.
At one point, Wesen considered going back to college to get his master’s degree so he could be a professor, “but your life events are such that some of those choices get harder to do.”
This idea was pushed aside completely in 1978, the year Wesen got married, bought Angelina’s with his wife and started his postal service career.
Before long, they were raising three children and started up a second restaurant in Starbuck. Wesen and his wife also purchased his great-grandfather’s 400-acre farm, so he found himself managing cattle on top of his duties running Angelina’s and delivering mail.
“It’s easy to get into being overly busy, but it’s hard to get out of that,” Wesen said. “You can’t just walk away from your farming. You can’t walk away from the restaurant.”
Since Angelina’s didn’t open until 5 p.m. at that time, Wesen’s postal route worked in accordance with his hours at the restaurant: Mail by day, food service by night.
Wesen made a cardboard diagram of the postal case so he could memorize all 350 family names and locations around his route, while the orders of regular customers at Angelina’s were ingrained in his head, too.
“You didn’t remember their name, you’d remember what they’d eat,” Wesen said.
One retired man in particular would come in every Saturday to eat before heading to watch the races. As soon as an employee spotted him coming in from the parking lot, the goal was to have his usual spaghetti order with plain bread—not garlic toast—ready before he sat down.
Wesen notices some crossovers in his professional roles: Consistency in food quality was just as important in the restaurant industry as consistency in quality service as a mail carrier.
When Wesen applied to be a rural mail carrier, up to 400 applicants would be contending for a single position. The health benefits and retirement guarantee that came along with the reliable employment opportunity attracted many job searchers.
“Times change,” Wesen said. “Farming can be good, but the mail route is a steady job with steady income, steady benefits.”
After committing the families' names and houses to memory, Wesen got to know the people at each stop.
When he pulled in the driveway of a working couple one day, he knew no one was home, but he saw smoke coming from the backyard. Wesen pulled up his car closer to the shed and saw flames kicking up six feet high. If he hadn’t been on the route or made the calls, the fire would’ve burned down the whole property.
“Those people were pretty thankful,” Wesen said.
At a different house, Wesen knew a 101-year-old woman had a few medical issues, so he would always bring her mail straight to the front door.
She was already outside by her garage when he arrived one winter day and it was 18 below zero, so she told Wesen she would come grab the mail from his car.
She made it a few steps away from Wesen before she collapsed. He moved his vehicle to block the wind, covered her up with an extra coat and called 911.
She wrote him a thank you card after recovering from the heart attack, saying he saved her life.
“I had a special place in my heart for the elderly,” he said. “I was probably the only contact they had.”
Including her thank you card, Wesen has a collection of notes he’s gathered from people along his mail route. A ripped-out sheet of notebook paper with water damage on the corner, signed “Love, Ben.” A drawing of Charlie Brown checking his mailbox. A tattered sheet from a yellow pad of paper with cursive handwriting.
One young girl would leave notes thanking him for his hard work and asking him questions, so they became pen pals and Wesen would write back.
In one of her notes, she mentioned she was going to have a new brother soon. So once he was able to start writing, her brother started leaving notes for Wesen, too.
‘Something you don’t forget’
Although Wesen remembers many delivery days fondly, like a family that surprised him with the kids lined up at the door to sing Christmas carols or those who would leave homemade cookies in the mailbox, he recalls some difficult times as well.
“A lot of happy stuff, but there’s a couple other times that were very disturbing,” Wesen said.
Five years ago, after a Starbuck teenager’s body was found in a corn field, Wesen recognized that spot along his mail route. He can still remember the exact spot.
“It’s really troubling to me that a guy couldn’t have known that sooner and let the authorities know before that happened,” he said. “That’s something you don’t forget.”
The winter of 1996 was another year Wesen said he will never forget. His parents were leaving from one of their frequent visits when a passing driver hit their rear end and spun their vehicle out in front of a semi.
The phone rang at 3 p.m. at the post office, as Wesen was trying to hurry home for his son’s Little League game May 29.
“Every day after that when the phone rang, it was like a shiver went up my spine,” he said. “Everybody has life events that aren’t always good, but it’s something you gotta deal with.”
Once Wesen returned to work and word spread around the community, many people from the 350 places along his route met him at their mailboxes to comfort him.
“These people almost become like second families,” he said.
Even with two short pauses and a lunch break incorporated into his work schedule, Wesen said he took extra time to help people beyond dropping off their letters.
“To me, customer interaction was more important than the mail,” he said.
One woman in a wheelchair wouldn’t let anyone do things for her, but she’d ask Wesen to help move the hose in the yard or do other tasks around the house.
“I’m just an average guy, but I’ve got a little more stubbornness and initiative,” Wesen said.
Another woman in her 90s who lived by herself was just looking for conversation. Her husband had died and her children moved away, so Wesen could offer her a few minutes of companionship.
One day, she told him something she’d never told anyone.
At age 16, she gave birth to a child, put him up for adoption and had never seen him since. Decades later, she longed to do something about it. After confessing to Wesen, she reached out and connected with him. She spent her last five years of life knowing the rest of her family and grandchildren.
“Service plus, that’s us,” became Wesen’s slogan.
“Giving that little extra effort to these people, it really helps their lives,” he said
With his first month of retirement under his belt, Wesen plans to continue looking for ways to make people smile. He volunteers to help with people’s income taxes, spends time with his five grandchildren and helps out with men’s breakfasts at his church.
“Whatever little thing you can do encourages somebody else,” he said. “You really don’t know what value you have on this earth unless you help somebody. Everything else really doesn't matter.”