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Retiring downtown Columbia post office employees say goodbye to 'family'

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com

9:12 AM EST, January 16, 2013

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It doesn't strike you as particularly homey. In fact, the post office inside the American City Building in downtown Columbia looks like any other postal facility — people waiting in line, their minds somewhere off in the distance.

It isn't until you get to the counter when things begin to change, when postal employees Andra Craig and Lisa Henderson welcome you into their home.

"It's like coming to see your family," said Columbia resident and post office regular Connie Matheson. "They are always happy to be here and happy to be helping you."

Craig, 56, and Henderson, 40, have spent the last 10 years turning the tucked away post office into more than just a stop on an errand list. But that soon will end. On Jan. 31, Henderson and Craig will retire and leave their home away from home.

"I'm going to be sad," said Henderson, who started at the main post office in Columbia in 1998. "I'm sad every day as we see customers and hug them goodbye. ... I've seen kids grow up in Columbia from babies to 12 and 13 years old. I remember when their mothers were pregnant. This office feels like home. We know the customers and they know us. It's like one big ol' happy family."

While Craig and Henderson pride themselves on knowing everyone that comes through their office door, the pair still encounter fresh faces on a daily basis.

But where others might see a stranger, Craig and Henderson see an opportunity, a chance to make a new friend to add to the "family."

"Every customer that comes in gets the same treatment, because I like to see people happy," said Craig, who was assigned to the main post office for 17 years before moving to the American City office.

Having worked adjacent to the post office for the last 10 years, Columbia Archives manager Barbara Kellner has had a unique view of Henderson and Craig.

"With so many people they have this friendly rapport, it strikes me every time," Kellner said. "It makes you feel like you are living in a small town, with a small post office."

Although Dr. Allan Tsai, 61, of Columbia, only visits the post office once a month, he receives the same friendly and professional service as if he were a regular.

"They are very personable, friendly, respectful, very caring, and they take their time to make sure everything that is needed is attended to," Tsai said. "They address you as a human being and a person, not just a customer to get through. Its been a tremendously friendly relationship, and it makes it different from any other post office I have encountered."

Matheson, who works at Enterprise Community Partners, also located in the building, said on occasion you can spot a disgruntled customer not too pleased with the pair's chatty demeanor.

However, it isn't long before for one of the two matriarchs has turned the customer's mood around.

"While you stand in line, you see how they manage each person, and how they will do anything to help," Matheson said. "Watching that, you know you are going to get taken care of as quickly as possible."

Kellner, another regular customer, has experienced that mood transformation first hand.

"Sometimes, my first thought is to rush, but then I realize what makes the experience so rich. I settle down, take a breath and see this is what it's all about, communicating with people," Kellner said.

Said Craig: "Sometimes people do come in and they are not so pleasant, but instead of them putting their spirit on you, you put your spirit on them. I believe if you wake up in the morning with a positive attitude, than the rest of the day is going to be positive."

'We complement each other'

For these two best friends, being positive comes naturally.

"I smile a lot, I can't help it. That's my thing," Craig said recently one morning before the post office opened. In the background, Henderson's distinct laugh begins to bellow through the room.

"Lisa and I, we complement each other. It's a natural thing. It wasn't like working, we came here to do a duty, but we laughed."

With their final days approaching, Craig and Henderson spend less time inquiring about their customers and more time explaining their retirement plans.

While it may come as a shock that the pair were retiring, it doesn't come as a surprise that the two plan to spend their retirement taking care of others.

"I'm really going to miss my customers, but this experience will help me with my business," said Henderson, who plans to open a day care center in her Baltimore home.

Craig, of Odenton, said she plans on spending time with senior citizens living in assisted living homes, something she derives great joy from.

"I like children, but seniors are my favorite," Craig said. "I like to bring life to people that think that people are no longer interested in them."

For Martha Szollos, 61, of Harper's Choice, the retirement of Craig and Henderson hits hard.

"It's like a family member is gone," she said.

Szollos said she's been coming to the post office almost every day since the mid -1990s to mail letters or packages to her family members in Sweden and Hungary.

While Szollos has many fond recollections inside the post office walls, one in particular is stamped in her memory.

When her granddaughter was still a toddler, Szollos recalls bringing her along with her on her daily trips to the post office. After a while, Craig set up a vacant mailbox for the girl to call her own. So each day, the girl would drop off a letter addressed to "Ms. Andra," and, in place of her letter from the previous day, would find a small piece of candy and, of course, a big "Ms. Andra" smile.

"She thought it was her own little post office," Szollos said.

Didn't they all.

 

llavoie@tribune.com

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