Jaime Leon will say goodbye to the postal counter

Jaime Leon leaves his familiar post at the Vineyard Haven Post Office counter on the last day of January. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Jaime Leon, 60, is a graceful, serene man who smiles easily and takes people as he finds them. On a recent Sunday morning, Mr. Leon, who retires at the end of this month, sat at his kitchen table with a reporter for an interview to sum up his 28 years behind the counter at the Tisbury Post Office at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven.

His wife, Donna (Phillips) Leon, was behind him, taking muffins from the oven. She seemed to enjoy her self-effacing husband’s moment in the spotlight. Warm cinnamon muffins appeared on the table.

Mr. Leon’s life and career stories are different from your average retiree. He is a postal worker who is beloved by customers who largely came to know him in four-minute snatches when he began work at the post office counter in 1985.

His postal career represents the second half of a life that required perseverance and risk-taking.

“I come from a big family, 10 kids, in Montenegro, Colombia. I wanted to be a doctor and I studied in high school until I became one of the top students,” he said. “Of course, with 10 kids, there was no money for college, not to mention medical school. Montenegro is a city of about 45,000 located in the heart of Colombia’s coffee bean area.”

He continued, “So I took the civil service exam and did well. I was hired by the national revenue tax service and worked there for a couple of years. It was a good job. Friends who had come to the states kept urging me to come here, that the opportunities were greater.”

An uncle was a reporter for United Press International in Bogota (Colombia’s capital) whose offices were in the same building as American embassy staff. The staffers helped him get a visa with minimum red tape.

Mr. Leon gave up his plum job at home and at age 20, in 1972, he moved to the U.S., settling initially in New Jersey.

“I arrived in America in style, on a 747 jet, and then got a job cleaning toilets,” he grinned. The jobs began to improve slightly.

“You know, I didn’t have the language yet, so my jobs were pretty low-end, that didn’t require language — a lot of fast food and factory jobs,” he said.

Things began looking up when Mr. Leon moved to Rhode Island for a job as an aide in an assisted living facility. He met Donna, then a student at Bryant University, worked two full-time jobs, got married and bought a house.

“I had a friend working for the postal service who encouraged me to take the exam and I did,” he said. Mr. Leon earned a top score and got placement in West Tisbury, allowing them to move to the Island. Donna entered the family business, Phillips Hardware on Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs. The couple bought a house in Oak Bluffs where they live today.

On display are pictures of three grandchildren, courtesy of their daughter, Michelle, 28, and a second daughter, Heather, 35, from Mr. Leon’s previous marriage. The Leons have a son, Christopher, who is 23.

Mr. Leon dove in to his work and became an expert, one of only 200 or so in the country, on the intricacies of book postal rates, which involved a month of training on the arcane rules and regulations of the USPS. His first love remains working the counter. “I love the people, working with people in the community,” he said.

Asked how his job has changed, he said, “Changes in the post office? Well, for one thing, first-class mail has declined so much because of Internet and online bill-paying, but parcel delivery has increased a lot to make up for some of that first-class business.

“We’ve also added passport business in recent years. While it’s a little slow in winter, maybe one a day, in summer, I’ll handle four or five passports a day, But I think the biggest changes are in automation — computers.

“In the 1980s we had computers, but they were used for back office functions. When we got computers at the counter in the mid-1990s, we became faster and more efficient.”

Certainly having the postal database at his fingertips was helpful as he processed requests to ship everything from frozen scallops to live chickens. “Chicks, really, but definitely alive,” he recalled with a smile.

Mr. Leon is looking forward to devoting more time to personal passions in his post-postal life. A long-time runner with three Boston marathons among the 13 he ran before an injury shut him down 18 months ago, Mr. Leon is looking to get in shape for his 14th marathon and fourth Boston run.

“Now that I’m 60, I need a 3:45 (hours and minutes to complete the 26-plus mile race) to qualify and I’ve run 3:39, so we’ll see,” he said. “But I’ll work on Thursday, January 31 and begin training the next morning on Friday morning.”

The interview concluded, Mr. Leon rose from the table to prepare to go to church. As he escorted his guest to the door, he looked back and said, gently, “Don’t forget your muffin.”