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USA TODAY

In communities across America, the U.S. Postal Service wins the trust of neighbors on the ground, person to person.

I don’t think we appreciated just how much Jim Johnson meant to the people he served every day, until the block party.

The organizers, a collection of neighbors in Wilmington, Delaware, disguised the gathering marking his retirement as a Halloween party because they feared Jim wouldn’t show if he knew all the fuss was for him.

Jim, as described by a local reporter at the time, was an institution in the leafy Westmoreland, Westhaven and Westover Hills neighborhoods, just north of downtown, where he delivered much more than the mail.

He knew all the kids — and their pets — by name; he carried in the groceries; he took note of unlocked doors; offered gardening advice; and taught more than a few young pitchers the art of the curveball.

When he wasn’t doing all that, Jim was sprinting across a checkerboard of green lawns to ensure that the U.S. Postal Service did not fall short of its daily promise.

No matter how often or harshly the Postal Service is now being disparaged, the enduring image we carry is of a man delivering the mail, often on a dead run.

That man was our dad.

USPS flaws not from lack of trust

Beyond the lore of the rain, snow, heat and gloom of night, the USPS remains perhaps the most personal of any service offered by the federal government. Its purpose, according to the government’s own mission statement, is to “bind the nation together through the personal, educational, literary and business correspondence of the people.”

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While email, Federal Express and Amazon have cut considerably into that market share, the sacred trust lives on: Lifesaving medicine, pension benefits and, now, ballots hang in the balance.

It’s hard to imagine how angry and disappointed — mostly angry — Jim would be at the suggestion that the post office is no longer up to the challenge. Or that such an iconic American institution was being drawn into the nation’s bitter political divide. He would be the first to say that the USPS has its faults, but that they are not fatal flaws born of a lack of trust on the ground.

Jim Johnson in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1987, before his retirement. (Photo: Family handout)

In many communities, that trust is won every day when the greeting cards, Social Security checks, college acceptance letters — even the bills — appear in mailboxes or tumble through a slot in the front door.

A community bond

After more than three decades, Jim approached his final days on the job much like any other. He steered a boxy postal truck to North Dupont Road for the first unofficial stop of the day.

Butch, a scraggily pup who belonged to one of the neighbors, was waiting just like every day before. And just like every day before, he popped into the jump seat and they were off.

At virtually every stop, Jim accepted the parting good wishes of families who had become his own. There were tears and laughter, embraces filled with warm memories — and a surprise.

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On the route, Jim and Butch had become inseparable. The news of Jim’s retirement left the irascible mutt’s owners no choice: The dog and the mailman would ride off to retirement together.

Jim Johnson at his 90th birthday party in October 2017 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo: Johnson family photo)

It has been 33 years since Jim left the route, but we are still reminded of the deep bond forged between community and letter carrier.

Having only recently learned of Dad’s passing in 2018 at age 90, a Westhaven neighborhood couple called last year to express their condolences. They talked about Jim as if he were there earlier that day. They recalled his love of baseball and thought that we might enjoy the family’s collection of Major League caps.

That’s what the Postal Service means to us.

Kevin Johnson covers justice and national law enforcement issues for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @bykevinj

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