BASALT - Basalt post office customers won't see Don Gorman's smiling face at the counter anymore. Well, he wasn't always smiling, but he sure was at the counter a lot and helped thousands of customers over 14 years.
Gorman retired Thursday after a total of 40 years with the U.S. Postal Service, more than half that time in Aspen and Basalt.
He started at a post office in Los Angeles in 1973 at what he then thought was an awesome wage of $4.22 per hour - substantially better than the job he left. He worked from 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and then hit the beach, just a block from his home.
"People were saying, 'How can this guy be on the beach all day, every day?'" he recalled.
Gorman stayed with the Postal Service for 19 years in L.A. before he applied to transfer to anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley. He had visited a brother frequently in Glenwood Springs and wanted to move his family to the mountains. The waiting list for employment at Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs was lengthy, but he was able to get a job at the Aspen post office after a couple of weeks. That raised a red flag - why would Aspen have an opening when there was a waiting list everywhere else in the valley? Nevertheless, he took the post in 1992.
He was at the bottom of the seniority list for hours, but soon he was working 50 to 60 hours per week because the Aspen post office was perpetually understaffed and plagued by high turnover. Workers were paid the same in Aspen as they were in the middle of Kansas. They couldn't afford Aspen's high rents - let alone home prices.
Gorman and his family were fortunate. They had a house of considerable value to sell in Los Angeles and plowed their equity into a new house in Glenwood Springs.
He commuted to Aspen for seven years and worked under tough conditions at the counter. Since Aspen was always shortstaffed, the lines of customers were notoriously long in the 1990s. Customers were crabby by the time they reached the front. It wasn't always a pleasant place to work, Gorman said.
Fortunately, the postmaster in Aspen helped him land a position in Basalt, where the postmaster's wife was filling in as interim postmistress in 1999. Gorman started in Basalt when the post office was shoehorned into a cute spot on Midland Avenue.
"There was never a long line of people because there was no parking," Gorman said. The Basalt post office was relocated to a new building, at its current site, in 2000. Gorman's been a fixture at the counter ever since.
Gorman didn't always exude warmness, which is understandable when you consider how many tens of thousands of customers he helped. He had a no-nonsense approach to the job and wasn't quick to smile. But he was surprised when a reporter and Basalt post office customer suggested that he sometimes had an intimidating look.
"Maybe people just can't see my smile beneath my goatee," he quipped.
Gorman said he enjoyed the job because 99-plus percent of customers were pleasant. "You're doing a nice service for them," he said. As a result, he was able to be nice back to them.
He also had the temperament to deal with all those questions about mailing packages and to baby-sit unprepared customers.
"Patience is one of my few strong qualities," he said. "I'm a low-key kind of guy. It's not easy to get me riled."
Co-worker Rachel Thomas said Gorman is an "icon" who is legendary for his calm demeanor.
"We call him 'Crime Wave' because he's so mellow," she said.
The staff will miss him because "he takes a lot of jokes and lets them roll off his back," Thomas said. "In 18 years of working with him, I only made him mad twice.
"I'll miss him," she said.
Gorman, 65, initially planned to work through next year, when the youngest of his four children graduates from college. But the cash-strapped Postal Service, which is losing billions per year, offered a $15,000 bonus for eligible employees close to retirement who were willing to leave early - as long as they retired on Jan. 31.
"It's not exactly a golden parachute, not even silver," Gorman said with a chuckle. But it was enticing enough.
His wife, Lesley, will continue operating a day care out of their home, so Gorman plans to keep himself busy with skiing, cycling and helping his sons in Carbondale with gardening and brewing. It will be nice not having five days per week plotted out after 40 years on the job, he said.
As the retirement day drew near, his colleagues made sure the word got out to Basalt customers. A typed sign was posted under Gorman's window at the counter, saying, "Don is retiring this Thursday, Jan. 31st. Please feel free to wish him well or complain. He likes that."
He was unaware of its presence until some customers commented on it. Another sign, the kind with the movable letters, said, "Going, going, Don." His name tag also said, "retiree."
Gorman said on his last day that it would be hard to leave his colleagues. And even though he wasn't always smiling, it will be hard to give up those brief connections he had with customers for so many years, sometimes seeing the same people three or four times per week.
It was rewarding, Gorman said, that some people stood in line this week just to tell him goodbye.