BELOIT — Gary Collins wanted to serve his country when he graduated from Beloit Memorial High School in 1978.
When his hitch in the U.S. Army was over, he wanted to serve his community.
He’s been doing that for 37 years as a U.S. Postal Service carrier. He will retire on July 30 and he’s putting out an open invitation to his retirement party from 3-7 p.m. July 31 at Riverside Park.
“The community helped me and I can at least thank the community,” Collins said.
Collins, 60, said he was greatly influenced by coaches John Heineke and Bernie Barkin at Beloit Memorial High School.
“I’m thankful for a lot of things, including those coaches,” Collins said. “Coach Heineke would say, ‘Do something with yourself. Don’t just be here doing nothing.’ And Bernie would tell me that you can dream about something and make it happen, but that dream always comes first. You have to have one.”
Collins entered the Army after graduation.
“I wanted to serve my country, but I didn’t want to kill for my country,” he said. “That’s why I became a medic. I didn’t have to worry about taking a life. I could work to save one.”
Collins was deployed to Germany, where he said he felt liberated.
“There was a lot of racial strife back home, but in Germany there didn’t seem to be anything like that,” he said. “I almost decided to stay there.”
After his discharge, Collins was studying for a marketing degree at Blackhawk Technical College in 1984 when his career path changed.
“I applied at the post office, got hired and the rest is history,” he said. “I liked that I was helping the community and it was a job you never got laid off from and I had watched a lot of GM workers get laid off.”
Over his tenure, Collins had a downtown walking route for about 20 years, but also has other routes and has most recently delivered curbside parcels.
He remembers only two days when temperatures were so frigid he wasn’t allowed to complete a route.
“If it wasn’t 25 degrees below zero all day, you were out walking your route,” he said. “We delivered on some brutally cold days. I did some near 100 degree days, too. You were expected to keep to the dress code and keep hydrated, maybe walk through a sprinkler if you could find one.”
The No. 1 enemy of postal carriers, though, is an unleashed angry canine.
“I have pepper-sprayed a lot of dogs and made a lot of customers mad, but I’d tell them you have to chain your dog up,” he said. “I finally did get bit about four years ago. The dog was about 50 pounds and he was calm and with his master. I put my hand on a door and wasn’t paying attention and that joker jumped up and bit my finger. Thank God that dog had all his shots.”
Collins said he’s had a few other anxious moments. He remembers the brakes went out on his truck and he had to slip it into neutral and coast to a stop. He said delivering mail along Riverside Drive was often arduous with semi-trailers buzzing by and shaking his truck. He also remembers doing a lot of praying he wouldn’t get stuck in the snow on long, steep driveways.
There was also the time he turned the corner and found a neighborhood full of police cars.
“I thought, what have I gotten myself into?” he said. “I asked an officer I knew, “You have your gun out. Am I safe in this neighborhood? He said, ‘Mailman, you’re good. Just stay to this side of the street.’”
Fate saved the worst for last, however. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he knew his job was essential, but put him at risk.
“A lot of people didn’t want to interact with others,” he said. “They were scared of the virus. But as postal workers we had to go to work. We suited up and just prayed to God we didn’t get infected.”
Parcel delivery boomed during the pandemic. Collins won’t miss that part of the job.
“It’s a workout,” he said. “Thirty years ago you’d have maybe 20 packages for a whole route. Now it’s 130. Every day. The most you can carry is 75 pounds. But you can have 25-pound boxes of slats for flooring and there are 25 boxes. That’s a lot of trips to your truck.”
Still, he says he will miss the job.
“It really is enjoyable,” he said. “You’re meeting a lot of people in your community and helping them. The job helped me raise four kids and those that wanted to go to college went to college.”
Collins figures he will have plenty to keep him busy in retirement. He serves as a minister with Pastor Sherrick Anderson at Higher Ground Christian Center. He’s a volunteer coach with the Citywide Softball program.
“I tell the kids I coach that I donate my time because I care what happens to them,” Collins said. “I want them to know that you should always make your community better. Don’t tear down what you can make better.”