She followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, and along the way herself became a fixture at Red Bay Post Office.
Now, 32 years and seven months later, Donna Hester is closing the window on her postal career. The longtime clerk at Red Bay Post Office will greet customers from behind the window for the last time on Sept. 23. Her official retirement date will be Sept. 30.
Hester’s children were both in elementary school when she decided to make the switch from working as a stay-at-home mother to taking a job with the postal service. With her husband, Alton, being self-employed in the construction business and the family needing good medical insurance, Hester looked to postal service for a career. Her maternal grandfather, Lolan Credille, had worked for many years as a letter carrier in Belmont. So, she took the test and was accepted by the service.
Though she may have hoped for a local job, she initially started out in the Sheffield Post Office in February 1988. That job saw her getting up early in the morning – she had to be at work at 4:30 a.m. to begin sorting the day’s mail.
“That was at the time when Muscle Shoals didn’t have its own clerks there sorting mail and we sorted all of Sheffield’s and all of Muscle Shoals’ in the Sheffield office,” Hester said. “And so that’s why we were there so early, because we had to sort it and get trucked over to the Muscle Shoals carriers.”
A few months later a position came open in the Red Bay Post Office, though it was fewer hours and less pay than she was making in Sheffield. Still, she jumped at the opportunity and in December 1988 joined the Red Bay Post Office staff.
“I wanted to be in my hometown,” she said. “They didn’t have to let me transfer but they did, and the postmaster up there understood my situation. If I hadn’t taken the job, then I might not have ever gotten to come here.”
Hester said there were several differences between Red Bay and Sheffield, with the lower mail volume being the biggest difference. Back then sorting was done by hand, too. That is no longer the case as sorting has just about all been consolidated in Birmingham and done by machine.
There was another major difference, though, that was the chief benefit of making the switch: She knew the faces here. Well, most of the faces.
“There are still people that I wait on that I know them by them coming in here, but they’re not people that I’m around any other time, so I know their face and I might know their first name, but I don’t know what family they come from,” Hester said. “But I have learned a lot of people. That’s the thing I’m going to miss the most. I’m looking forward to retirement but I’m not looking forward to not being able to interact with people I’ve interacted with for 32 years. I’ll miss the people I work with because there’s some really good people here, but I’m going to miss the interaction with people.”
Of the hundreds of thousands of interactions she has had with customers in her career, there is one particular event in the 1990s that stands out.
“I was here by myself one day in the back and a person came in. I could see that there was somebody at the counter, but they were dressed totally in black. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t see any skin anywhere. They had a black helmet and a black face mask, and I thought I was fixing to get robbed,” she said. “I was standing back there thinking, ‘Do I go to the counter or around there?’ I kept standing there thinking, ‘Okay, but if it’s somebody that really wants me to wait on them, they’ll pull their face mask off.’”
She said she finally braved it and went to the counter. The customer simply pulled his motorcycle helmet off and conducted business as usual, oblivious to the concern he had caused.
A friend indeed
Being known to so many people it isn’t a surprise that Hester might be the first they turn to for questions about the post office. However, she said she has received other questions from customers totally unrelated to the postal service – such as someone calling to ask for help on a crossword puzzle.
Hester has answered many questions over the years – mostly about the postal service. Rules have changed through the years, and this has sometimes led to some confusion for postal patrons. Hester has been quick to help when she could, and quick to explain why in the times she could not help.
“The Post Office has lots of rules, some more so as time has progressed since (the terrorist attacks on) 9/11,” Hester said. “A lot of people think you can just come in and rent a box with an address. Now you have to have certain IDs to be able to rent a box. There are only certain things that we can take and sometimes I have to turn people down or tell people that I can’t do a certain thing. I just have to follow the rules. But I always try to explain the rule.”
Mail volume has declined through the years, Hester said, and cited that as the biggest change she has seen in her career. However, the post office handles more packages now than it used to – especially since COVID-19 hit – as people shop more online.
Hester has worked under five different postmasters, but she never wanted to seek out the position herself.
“I didn’t because my children were in school here and often work close by all the time,” she said. “Sometimes we eat lunch together and I didn’t (apply to be a postmaster) because I knew if I ever left from this job to go to a postmaster’s job that I might not ever get to come back to this office. That’s just kind of the way things work. You don’t ever know if there will be an opening or if they would even accept you. I love the people and I loved my job and I didn’t want to leave.”
Although she is not looking forward to leaving the people and the routine she has known for more than three decades, Hester is looking forward to more time with family and the next chapter of her life.
“I am going to take care of my little grandson, Will, who is two years old,” she said. “Until he goes to school that is going to be my job for the next three years.”
Still, having this to look forward to hasn’t made the decision come any easier. Hester began telling customers recently that she was going to be retiring. She didn’t want to just “come up missing.” She has heard many times over the past few days that she will be missed.
“I struggled with it for a long time,” Hester said of opting to retire. “I really prayed about it. And then the Lord just gave me a peace about it, that it was time to go.”