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Retiring Smyrna postmaster saw a revolution of change

The post office in Smyrna was at the heart of the community when Diane Jenkins started working there almost four decades ago. In many ways, it still is.

Jenkins, who signed on as a part-time postal clerk 37 years ago, and was promoted to Smyrna postmaster in 1990, plans to retire at the end of this month. During that time, she watched a revolution in electronic communication that has replaced much of the role of traditional mail.

But people still stop into the tiny post office in Smyrna, with a population of about 50, to say hello, visit and buy stamps or pick up mail.

“This post office, for this community, is real important,” said Jenkins, 65. “It’s the hub. They come here to get information. Especially in a small town, everyone is neighbors.”

The U.S. Postal Service in 2012 announced a plan to keep small, rural post offices, like the one in Smyrna, open for business, while still saving money to offset declines in postal revenue.

Beginning Jan. 10, the Smyrna and Hickory Grove post offices will be open reduced hours of four hours a day instead of eight.

The McConnells post office reduced its hours in August, to six hours a day, down from eight. No changes in hours are planned for the Sharon post office, officials said.

Monica Coachman, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said the agency’s plans announced in 2011 to close some small post offices were met by an outcry from many rural residents.

“We heard from communities, especially the rural communities, that that would not be good,” Coachman said. “The post office has a community identity. We have many in the rural communities who need the post office.”

Coachman said no rural post offices have been closed. Instead, she said, the agency decided to evaluate rural post offices and see when they are most frequented by customers. She said most communities overwhelmingly favored reduced hours to keep the post offices open.

“A lot of times, there are people who say they can’t travel very far to get to a post office,” Coachman said. “Especially for a rural community, a post office may be the only place they can see friends and get those (postal) services.”

Jenkins, who was born and raised in Smyrna, but now lives in the Blacksburg area, started working as a postal clerk in 1977.

Les Whitesides, the late owner of the now defunct Whitesides General Store in Smyrna, told Jenkins that the post office was looking for some part-time help. She was hired to work four hours a week, often on Saturdays, selling stamps and money orders and sorting mail into boxes.

The part-time work was a perfect fit for Jenkins, who had just given birth to the first of her two children. Over the years, she also pitched in at post offices in Sharon, McConnells, Blacksburg and York when they needed clerical help.

At that time, the U.S. Postal Service was the main venue for written communication.

Letters from soldiers overseas, bills and legal notices, birthday cards and chatty notes between family and friends: All of it flowed through the post office.

Jenkins interacted with people in the community every day, and she still does. “Some of the older patrons have been like grandparents to me,” she said.

Jenkins said she did one stint as a mail carrier for about three months, covering for someone who was ill.

That was enough for her to develop a great respect and appreciation for the difficult work that mail carriers do in in all types of weather and other conditions.

“You might get out and there would be a nest of bees in the box,” Jenkins said. “Or a snake. You never know what you’re going to find.”

Jenkins said she had opportunities over the years to apply for jobs at other, larger post offices. But she was happy in Smyrna.

In 1990, she became Smyrna postmaster, and over time, much of the work that used to be done by hand has been automated. Letters that were once sorted by hand in preparation for delivery, she said, are now scanned and sorted by a machine.

Items for home delivery now are picked up by a rural carrier in York instead of in Smyrna, she said. The rural carrier covers more than 100 miles and visits about 550 mailboxes, she said.

Jenkins had planned to retire and travel when she was 60, but then her husband, Lewis, died. She decided to keep working because she enjoyed her job.

The Smyrna post office is important in part because it’s one of just a few business or government establishments in town. There’s also Faulkner Well Co., Cloverleaf Metal and the Smyrna Volunteer Fire Department.

Rickey Wilson, who has served as fire chief in Smyrna for the last 30 years, said Jenkins has been a friend to the community.

“She cares for people in the community, and she knows everybody by first name,” Wilson said. “Everybody at one point in time has had to deal with the post office.”

Wilson said Jenkins has advised the fire department on how to conduct mailings for its fundraisers. After 9/11, he said, she ordered a commemorative stamp issued by the postal service to honor firefighters and presented it to the department.

Tom Murray, postmaster in York, said the postmaster job has been important to Jenkins.

“She takes her job very seriously, and she strives to give customers the best service,” Murray said. “She’s going to miss that job. And she’s going to miss the people.”

Once Jenkins has retired, Coachman said, someone will be hired to handle retail and operational duties at the Smyrna office.

Jenkins said she will miss her customers, but she also said she’s looking forward to spending more time with her two grandchildren and enjoying some hobbies.

“It’s been a joy to be postmaster here,” she said. “The people of the community are wonderful. People are so close knit, and everybody looks out for everybody else.”