Customers came first for newly retired postal clerk
During her career as a clerk at the Ellijay Post Office, Sheila Hoffman was often one of the first people newly relocated customers met after moving here.
So, figured the patient and personable Chicago native who worked the last 20 years behind the city post office’s front counter, why not make a good impression?
“That’s where they usually start off, the post office. They come in to get their address straight or to get a P.O. box. I had the opportunity of meeting them first,” said Hoffman, who officially retired from the U.S. Postal Service Aug. 31.
Hoffman, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill., before moving to Ellijay from Atlanta in 1986, said several of her customers have become friends and some have been “like family” over the years.
“I’m going to seriously miss (the customers). I really do care about them,” said Hoffman, 63. “In some cases, I’ve known their moms and dads. I usually know their children and, with some of them, I know their children’s children.”
Postmaster Bill Foster emphasized Hoffman’s rapport with the public.
“(That’s) one of the things that really stands out – her customer base. People would come in and ask for Sheila and wait on Sheila (so she could help them),” said Foster.
Co-worker Kris Wingo said Hoffman always took into account how a lost package or returned letter might create a worrisome experience for a customer. With her calm, midwestern cadence and amiable sense of humor, Hoffman tried to make those situations as pleasant as possible.
“Sheila always tried to make everybody feel good about coming to the post office. She’s a great friend and would do anything for you,” Wingo said. “At the front counter, the biggest issue is usually trying to locate or track somebody’s mail that went from Ellijay and hasn’t gotten to its destination on time.”
Then there’s the ever-changing price of a single stamp.
“It’s always a penny or two and they go crazy for a penny,” Hoffman said about the public’s reaction to revolving stamp prices. “It catches them off guard and in the beginning, except when they went down (to 47 cents). That’s the first time I know of that the price of stamps has gone down.”
Customer Danny Wilson stopped by the Ellijay Post Office the last day of August not only to mail a letter, but to wish his friend well on her retirement. “I’ve known her forever and we’ve been friends ever since (we met),” said Wilson.
The former commercial artist bonded with Wilson over a shared interest in handmade jewelry.
“She likes jewelry and I make jewelry, so we’ve always talked about that. She’s just a swell lady,” Wilson said.
Hoffman said problems with her back that were worsened by extensive surgery a few years ago influenced her decision to retire.
“I had two discs removed and three rebuilt in the lower part of my back. I actually talked to a surgical nurse the other day who told me that she’d never known of a severe back surgery like mine that turned out well,” she said.
“It’s a tough job and there’s a lot of physical work,” Hoffman added about the duties of mail carriers, clerks and sorters. “There are people who get there at 5:30 a.m. to get their parcels ready. It’s phenomenal what they do.”
People who move here from bigger cities typically appreciate the personable service they get at the small-town post office.
“We hear it a lot, that this post office is different from whichever one they’d used before,” said Hoffman.
Co-worker Don Garver said Hoffman’s “people personality” and sense of humor made her “a pleasure to work with.”
“She’s kindhearted and has a great work ethic. She always put the customers first,” said Garver, who came to Ellijay in 2006 after working for the postal service in Atlanta.
“If it wasn’t for Sheila, I wouldn’t be employed here,” he continued. “I walked in one day and asked if I would be able to get a job and she gave me the direction.”
Hoffman, whose father served in the Air Force, said the organizational structure of the postal service has a lot in common with that of the military.
“A lot of the language is (the same),” she added.
Garver, who served in the Navy from 1992-98, agreed.
“Some of the acronyms and lingo are the same between the two. There’s a parallel with the orders of operations and policies and procedures in both,” Garver confirmed. “The Postal Service Employee Labor Manual is similar to the UCMJ, or Uniform Code of Military Justice, as far as guidelines that workers must follow.”
Rumblings about the postal service being privatized or restructured to fit a different model have made news in recent years, but Hoffman doesn’t expect those kinds of changes to happen anytime soon.
“I don’t think any organization could privatize or manage the Postal Service. It would impact the country so much if that ever happened,” she said. “You can still get a letter delivered across the country for less than 50 cents. What on Earth can you buy for less than 50 cents these days?”
A lifelong animal lover, Hoffman said she’ll be happy looking after her “critters” while settling into retirement.
“I’ve had dogs and cats all my life,” she said. “Every animal in my household has been one that somebody was going to give away and they came to me.”
She’s been gone from the busy front counter for just two weeks, but regular customers have been quick to notice Hoffman’s absence.
“We still have customers coming in (asking) ‘What happened to Sheila?’” said Foster. “That speaks a lot of her and to her interaction with customers. It’s a pleasure to work with somebody like that and you hate to see them go.”
Hoffman said she considers not only some of her longtime customers, but also her coworkers, family.
“Thank you to all the people of Ellijay and my coworkers for helping me and being there for me. They’ve been my life for a few decades and I honestly don’t know what I would do without them,” she said. “(As for the customers), when you have people wait for you to help them because they like you, it just really touches your heart.”