Through seven years of zoning battles over a new post office in Howard County's Highland neighborhood, Bill "Postmaster Bill" Dailey and his staff soldiered on.
They had to work out of a trailer - "temporary" quarters that had been there since 1973. No problem. Dailey practiced the small-town art of hospitality and transformed the post office into a community center. He painted it red, white and blue, and added a deck. The staff wore costumes on holidays. Sometimes Dailey fixed customers' flat tires.
The trailer, at the intersection of Routes 108 and 216, was so cramped that staff members had to go outside to sort mail. But that was no problem either. They put on coats in the winter and worked holidays to keep ahead. And Dailey knocked down some walls to make more room.
So it's no wonder that when Dailey and his small staff finally moved into their new $1.1 million post office building two weeks ago, happy residents flooded them with flowers, cards, cookies and lasagna. Highland is a little dot of a town with 1,000 homes. But the post office sits in what counts as the heart of Highland, at a cramped intersection that holds a family-run market, a pharmacy, a veterinarian's office, a furniture store and a feed store.
And Dailey, a lifelong Highland resident, has done his best to give the post office heart. From the time he was appointed postmaster in 1993, he has been dressing up as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and holding pumpkin-carving contests - all from the front porch of the trailer, and all recorded in photos that adorn the walls of the new post office.
He moves tree limbs off the lawns of senior citizens, and he drives by to pick up packages they want to mail.
"Just to get in and out of the old place with your car was a challenge," said fellow lifelong Highland resident Esther Brian. "If you had four people in there at once you were stuck, but they are such wonderful people that you didn't even notice."
And now, after seven years of seeking a plot of land, the office employees' dreams have come true. They moved into a building - on Highland Road - that they and the area residents helped design. Dailey encouraged residents' input by placing a list for suggestions on the trailer wall. Some suggestions adopted by postal officials included a 24-hour lobby and an architectural blending with other community structures.
The customer service that helped decorate the walls with awards helped draw customers from surrounding towns to that little trailer.
"The people that run that office make it special. They don't spend eight hours looking at their watches," said Elizabeth Connolly, a member of the family that runs Boarman's Market in Highland.
Daley and his only full-time employee, Carol Simmons, spend at least 10 hours a day, six days a week there and greet each customer by name.
When the U.S. Postal Service sought to consolidate Highland's office with one nearby in Fulton in the late 1980s, residents banded together and petitioned to keep their office.
The office workers had to prove themselves to earn a building, said Dailey. And they did.
For the past three years, the Highland Post Office has won the Postal Service's top customer satisfaction and delivery confirmation awards in the capital district, competing against giants in Washington that, according to Dailey, have more traffic in one day than his office has in 30 days and hence more customers to fill out and return the surveys. But no office had as many responses from residents as did Highland's office, said Simmons.
Dailey still isn't satisfied. "Now that we're in the building, I'm gonna want more," he said. "My standards are going to be higher."
"It's the little things that make the post office what it is," he said.
Those little things include a cellular phone system set up for senior citizens who, when they have difficulty getting out of their cars, can call in from the post office parking lot so an employee can come out to help them.
Last Christmas the post office sponsored a needy local family of nine. With the help of the community, donations of toys and food were collected. One of the community members offered to cook Christmas dinner for the family, which Dailey delivered.
"You should have seen the mother's face when we walked through the door," said Dailey