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Dillingham bows out after 30 years with the post office


PEPPERELL — Charlene Dillingham, a lifelong resident of Pepperell, wore her “retirement crown” to complement her ever-present smile all day Tuesday, June 30, in the post office.

It was her last working day after 30 years, two days after her 62nd birthday.

The shift was bittersweet and somewhat sad because of the people she might not see as much in the future, she said. But Dillingham said the upside is she won’t have to struggle to rise above the downside of the new postal system.

It bothers her that her position will not be replaced because it will increase the workload for her colleagues. Though the volume of mail these days is less than a decade ago, where there once were six, there will now be four.

“I love the people,” she said, “and at one time I loved the job but now it’s so controlled from above by computers and it’s much worse. The postmaster used to be totally in charge, but no more.”

These days window workers have a detailed script they are required to recite to every customer, asking if mail is hazardous, flammable, liquid, perishable and more, even if the customer is known. “Mystery shoppers” from the postal service appear from time to time to rate the system and the workers.

“If you flunk, you answer to the biggest boss in a personal appearance,” she said.

Sept. 11, 2001 is the main reason for the questions but then, who’s going to admit they’re mailing a bomb, she asked. Of course customers can lie, but if there’s an incident, they’re in big trouble.

“In 1979 I was the baby, a newly hired substitute carrier. Now, I’m the oldest,” she said from her seat atop a table in the rear of the town’s newest post office.

It is the fifth one Dillingham has worked in Pepperell. She started in the former Railroad Square office (now a hair salon), then moved “uptown” to the brick building across Townsend Street from the Community Church when Pepperell had less than 7,000 residents but had two post offices and two zip codes.

The uptown office later moved to the Lorden Hardware building for a few years then both zip codes and both offices were combined into the structure built by former Fire Chief John Marriner beside what is now North Middlesex Savings Bank.

Earlier this decade the post office moved to its current, privately built, leased building, the second to last new one authorized for construction by the Postal Department.

“We had eight routes in 1979 with about 500 customers each, just as now,” she said. “I learned all eight. As a sub, you pull your own mail and flats (magazines) from the bin and sort it in your own cage.”

Dillingham said these days mail is presorted by computer and placed in bins in order of delivery, “four trays in perfect order sorted as delivered on the route.”

“There is a stray letter case for the guys that were kicked out for whatever reason,” she added.

Dillingham became a clerk in 1980 but kept her delivery duties. That doubled-up job has also disappeared. The clerk used to unload trucks on the loading dock, set out all packages for the mail carrier, sort letters and “flats” then work the “wall” for box section mail.

“Being a small post office we decided years ago to rotate shifts. We’ve all learned every job, unlike the large offices,” she said.

Married 43 years to husband Dean, a retired truck driver, she is the mother of two daughters, Janet, a medical supply worker, and Susan, a veterinarian, and the grandmother of two girls, Lily and Anna.

Hobbies include NASCAR racing, playing cards, and gambling at Foxwoods Casino, where she has one favorite $1 slot machine.

“John McNabb’s General Store is the center of town activity,” she said. “I never went there until I started playing Keno. (Now there often) they asked me what I wanted. I said a chair with a cushion.

“In the early 1950s we moved onto Bacon Street, the town’s first development. We scrimped to move out of the Beehive (a tenement at the intersection of Groton and Hollis streets, now an apartment building). That was a whole neighborhood contained in one building. There was a barn with cows and chickens. The town had 2,000 people,” she said.

“My dad (a seriously wounded World War II veteran) was a garbage collector when I was small taking garbage from in-ground pails to a piggery on Harbor Street,” Dillingham said. “My mom worked for Doc Davis (the veterinarian). There used to be a bandstand next to the ice-cream shop where there were talent shows.

“The town was wild then. The Prescott Hotel had dances and other entertainment. There were a lot of barrooms. It was off-limits to GI’s from Fort Devens. The hotel (now the site of the White Hen Pantry Plaza) was beautiful at one time, with ferns and velvet carpets,” she said.

As a postal worker, “you get to know almost everyone, their address and/or box number,” she said, adding that there are now many empty boxes because people can’t afford to keep them.

She’ll miss some of the behind-the-scenes fun in the post office such as singing and dancing on “Fun Fridays” and co-workers “Sue, Doreen, Mary and Peg,” and of course, two former co-workers who have passed on, Milly Turner and Rita McGrath.

Retirement may include some traveling.

“We have a motor home that hasn’t left the yard in two years,” Dillingham said. “I’m a saver, kind of a keeper (of things) so I’m going to clean out my house.

“I’m going to stay in Pepperell. I can’t imagine living in any other place. I’d rather be here where I’m comfortable and know the people.”

Dillingham turned 62 on June 28.

“I hope they say, “God, I hope I look that good when I’m 62,'” she said with a grin.