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Keeping an essential service on track: A visit with Mary Payne, leading ZIP code 11964

Cleaning houses on Shelter Island was difficult work, but more difficult was no benefits, including health insurance for herself and her family. So Mary Payne found a way, she said, when her mother-in-law recommended she take the test to become a postal employee, which provided good benefits.

“So, I took it and didn’t hear anything,” Ms. Payne said with a laugh in her office at the Center Post Office. Laughter is never far away in a conversation with her. “Not a word for a year-and-a-half.”

But then the call came and she was hired.

That was three decades ago, when she started working as a clerk in the Mattituck Post Office; two years later she was home on the Island at the Center. In 2009, Ms. Payne was named postmaster — the executive of a post office is called postmaster regardless of gender — taking over from Heather Reylek, who had retired.

Her workday starts early. She’s at the office before 8 a.m., Monday through Friday. But for the pandemic years, she was at her post six days a week.

Once at the office, she said, “We look at what’s ahead of us for the day,” speaking of her staff of Bruce Kolodny and Michael Torres, who she said has been a godsend, hired Christmas Eve 2021. “We’re lucky to have him,” she added. “The whole community’s lucky to have him,” she noted, for his dedication to the customers and his positive attitude. 

The whirlwind time of the pandemic has abated a bit, but it still consists of days filled with work, and few employees worked harder than postal workers during the worst of COVID. There was no working from home,Ms. Payne explained, and with pandemic mandates on isolation for most people, online shopping boomed.

“We were getting, and still get, up to 200 packages a day,” Ms. Payne said. “A light day is 100. During the holidays it can be 500 a day.”

In addition, the Island’s population grew rapidly with second homeowners moving here full time to find more safety from the virus, and others moving from cities and buying houses to escape COVID.

One example of the population boom was that “it got to the point that we didn’t have any more post boxes for people moving here,” Ms. Payne said. Those without boxes were given the address of general delivery and picked up their mail at the desk.

It’s said that leading an office of any kind successfully depends on the correct management of people. The difficulty comes, Ms. Payne said, when “occasionally people don’t want to be managed.” But this is worked through by “respecting everyone,” she said. “You have to listen to them and be open to their ideas. It’s give and take.”

When people complain about service, or anything else, Ms. Payne said she takes the attitude of, “How would I like to be treated if I had a complaint? I invite them in and I listen.”

These days a lot of time is spent in teleconferencing, Ms. Payne said, with regional offices and other town and village post offices. It can be a slog, but she sees the upside that “we’re connected. They know we’re here.”

Although technology has changed nearly everything, some things on Shelter Island remain the same, as Ms. Reykek pointed out in a feature article for the Reporter a number of years ago. The mail is still delivered by ferry, and to get your mail you must go to the post office, which most Islanders don’t see as a chore, but a pleasant way to go to the heart of the community.

Postal service was established here in 1854, according to Ralph Duvall, author of “The History of Shelter Island” and also a postmaster in the early part of the 20th century, as Ms. Reylek has written. Archibald R. Havens, co-owner of a general store, was the first postmaster in an office located in what was known as “The Old Store,” along with the telegraph office and small library. One of the tragedies of the 19th century for the Island was when The Old Store burned down in 1891.

The Heights opened a post office in July 1880, Ms. Reylek has written.

Isabel G. Duvall, Ralph’s sister, became the Island’s first woman postmaster in 1915. The history of women postmasters has continued, with Ms. Payne, and Cheryl Brown, who retired two years ago as postmaster of the Heights Post Office.

Ms. Reylek said this week that she considered herself fortunate to have “worke with Mary Payne for several years in the Postal Service. When I retired from the Shelter Island Post Office in 2008, there couldn’t have been a better candidate to follow me than Mary. She’s one of the hardest working people I know. Her dedication to the community is a shining example for us all. It’s not an easy job. The responsibilities are great. What I love about Mary is that she keeps going and still remembers to laugh.”