By John Rice
"Johnny D." is finally hanging up his mail pouch after forty years of walking the streets of Forest Park. He will be missed by many, especially his customers in the northeast part of town: The route he insisted on keeping, despite opportunities he had to move to a less strenuous one.
"They are such wonderful people," John D'Alexander said, "I don't consider them postal customers. I consider them friends."
This feeling is reciprocated by the people along his route. "He made me pay attention to something I had never noticed before," said Mary Claire Mathews, "Mail delivery."
"He is outstanding. He's very pleasant but all business. You can have a lightweight conversation but I don't know anything about him personally."
It's D'Alexander's consideration that caught Mathews' attention. One day he suggested she replace her mailbox. "You need to get a new one, because your mail is going to get wet." After his third reminder, she took his advice. Mathews also appreciated the way he delivered the many packages she receives.
"Whenever I get a package, he will ring the doorbell. If he rings twice, I know that I have to come down and sign for it." Other package delivery companies leave her parcels in the rain, not Johnny D. "He's really a perfect example of how a mail carrier should be. I know he won't win the Nobel Prize or make the headlines but he's just phenomenal."
Maybe that's because D'Alexander had his sights set on carrying mail from a young age. He also found there was no better place to work than the town where he grew up. His parents set down roots in Forest Park in November 1955, when Johnny D. was three. They lived across the street from Betsy Ross School, where D'Alexander attended kindergarten through sixth grade. (Johnny D's parents never left. They passed away after enjoying fifty years in their adopted hometown.)
During his high school years at St. Joseph's, he pumped gas at the Go-Tane station at Harvard and Harlem. After graduation, he was seeking a career rather than college. "I wanted health insurance and a retirement package, so I picked the post office. I started working at the Forest Park Post Office on March 29, 1974."
Johnny D. has a phenomenal memory for dates. He recalled being assigned to his present route on January 3, 1976. "The people are just terrific," he said, "Some literally grew up in front of my eyes." That will happen when you start a route at age 23 and are still doing it at 62.
"I like being outside," Johnny D. continued, "No one is looking over your shoulder. But it's kind of rough in the winter. Ice is the biggest problem. Cold you can dress for." Johnny D. wears sturdy boots but, on his way to work in January 1984, he slipped on the ice and broke his arm. He was off for a long time – if you consider Johnny D. once went ten years without calling in sick. "I had two kids in college," he explained with a smile.
"Last winter was the worst ever. It was brutal. It took every ounce of strength and determination to get through that."
Weather can be a torment, so can four-legged animals but not for D'Alexander. "I never had a problem with a dog. I never got bit." It's not harsh weather, health problems, or barking dogs that influenced Johnny D.'s decision to retire. "I'm leaving on my own terms," he said, "I'm excited about retiring but I'll miss the people on my route and the people I worked with."
No one respects Johnny D. more than his co-workers.
"I met Johnny D. when I started working in Forest Park," said village resident Joe Mullen, "He was very welcoming. He gave me words of wisdom on how to carry the mail: Be safe always, be aware of your surroundings, wear the right clothing so you can stay warm and dry."
He recalled D'Alexander was prepared if there was even a hint of rain in the air. "If I saw Johnny D. taking his raincoat, I wouldn't take mine," Mullen joked. In the mornings, Mullen would be sorting mail right next to Johnny D. "He let you know right away when something exciting happened with his family. I know his second grandchild is on the way."
Mullen faces the same challenges Johnny D. found on the job: ice, slippery leaves, dogs. ("The uniform sets them off.") "Last winter was really horrible. Johnny D. didn't miss one day. Some carriers couldn't get to work due to transportation problems."
"He sets a great example. He's very humble, close to the vest. He doesn't want a [retirement] party. He wants to help his daughter with her two kids. He's the ideal mail carrier." Mullen found this out firsthand. "In 1987, I moved to his route. Johnny D. delivered my mail for two and a half years."
George Lee isn't only a fellow carrier, he's Branch President of Local 608 of the Letter Carriers Union. He described Johnny D. as being very professional. "He's the first person to work every day at 6 a.m. He's dressed neatly in his uniform and always has a smile on his face. He's a friendly guy, who always talks to everybody. Wow – I couldn't believe it when I heard he had plans for retirement."
"We're certainly going to miss him. He has a genuine letter carrier spirit. All he cares about is his route. Not one complaint about him. He's old school – there to serve the community. This is the way it used to be. He will not be easy to replace."
Johnny D.'s co-workers are planning a modest celebration for him at the post office. That will be fine, because the last thing he wants is a lot of fuss.
Nancy, Johnny D.'s wife of 39 ½ years, is excited he's retiring, although she has a few years to work as an insurance underwriter before she can join him. Johnny D. is looking forward to not having a set schedule. Currently, he rises every workday at 4 a.m., has breakfast at Louie's Grill at 5 a.m. ("Great food, great waitresses") and heads to the post office to sort the mail.
Retirement has given him some bittersweet emotions but he knows what he'll be doing with his time. He lives only ten minutes from their daughter, Lisa, who has 18 month-old Jack and a baby girl on the way. His son, Jimmy, is also married, so there may be more grandkids coming. Johnny D.'s also hoping to finally improve his golf game. He didn't say whether he'd be carrying his clubs or riding in a cart.