Standing outside the Aquebogue post office on Friday, every resident entering or leaving stopped to say hello to former postmaster Mark Linnen, who retired on July 31 after 30 years of serving the community.
The faces, the smiles, the stories shared, the generations he's seen grow up -- those are the moments and experiences that made Linnen's journey far more meaningful than just an ordinary career.
"It's more than just a job," he said. "It's a life."
Linnen, 57, who comes from a family of postal workers -- including his father, Walter Linnen, who was a postmaster in Riverhead, along with his sister and a string of cousins -- said a strong work ethic was imbued early in his childhood.
Born in Riverhead, Linnen, who said he's been "a Riverhead boy all my life," went to St. Isidore's grade school and Mercy High School. He began working at the age of 12 when he took on a paper route.
"I built that route up," he said. "When I was in eighth grade in 1969, I won a trip to Miama Beach, Florida," based on the number of orders he garnered for the district. Linnnen, along with other Long Island-based paper boys, was "set free on Miami Beach in 1969."
Staying at the Barcelona Hotel, two doors down from the famed Fountainebleau where Jackie Gleason was staying, Linnen remembers hippies on the street, playing "'The Age of Aquarius. It was a great time to be a kid."
Earning the trip, Linnen said, taught him the importance of customers and making sales. "It was a valuable lesson," he said.
Later, Linnen worked for W.T. Grants, a department store on Route 58 where Walmart now sits -- and where he ran the show, printing signs, building glass counters, decorating windows and holiday displays. "My creativity was let loose," he said. "I learned a lot about discipline and scheduling myself."
Times were hard, Linnen said, and one facet of the job involved repossessions -- knocking on doors and asking residents as far off as Montauk to return furniture and other "big ticket" items. But, instead, of a "tough guy" approach, Linnen and his manager offered customer service -- and compassion. "We were in the same boat -- trying to make ends meet," he said.
At 18, Linnen took his first post office position, at a Riverhead annex located on West Main Street; he worked nights at the 24-hour mail plant facility while attending college during the day, eventually graduating with a degree in business administration. Looking back, Linnen thanks his boss at the post office, Tony Gadzinski, for letting him "tweak" his schedule and make time for both work and a college education.
Next, Linnen gained managerial experience and began working at other post offices, with stints in Jamesport, South Jamesport, Upton, East Quogue, Ridge, Calverton, and Riverhead.
But when he arrived at the Aquebogue post office in 1982 as postmaster, Linnen knew he'd come home.
Back then the post office was located in the small brick building near the Old Steeple Church on Church Lane and Route 25. As the post office grew -- with no mail delivery, residents rent post office boxes -- the facility expanded to over 1500 boxes and moved in 1998 to its current location on Linda Avenue in Aquebogue.
For each mailbox, Linnen said, there were faces and names, stories and everyday conversation that made life rich with meaning.
Creatures of habit, Linnen said customers tend to stop by at the same time every day.
"You become a part of their lives," Linnen said. "You watch their kids grow up and their families expand. People move away, pass away. When someone passes away, you feel the hurt almost as much as their family. There are good times and bad -- and there are so many memories. That's what makes this one of the best jobs in the world."
Linnen said one job requirement was tantamount: "You've got to love people."
And there was one season, in particular, that brought out Linnen's gentle spirit and giving heart. Every Christmas for the past 25 years, Linnen collected letters from local children -- and answered every one.
"The Christmas lists, some were happy, but some were pretty sad. Children who had rough lives -- asking for their father to get out of jail or that their mother be cured of cancer." Linnen paused, thoughtfully. "Santa would have to answer those very delicately -- I told them to have faith, and trust in God. Everything happens for a reason."
Children who received their long-ago Santa letters saved them, Linnen said; now, they bring in letters to Santa from their own children.
The older children, who were not quite sure if they still believed, tried to trip up Santa with questions, such as what reindeer actually ate. "Santa answered that there was special reindeer feed that made them fly. The children figured if Santa answered their questions, he was real -- and the magic would last another year."
Other memories that stand out include directing traffic one day to allow ducks to cross Route 25 safely.
Linnen remembers years of helping Cub Scouts weigh their cars for Pinewood Derby races on the post office scale, because it was more accurate. "It was a part of being in their lives," he said. "A part of the community."
And, Linnen added, the old adage is true: Through snow, sleet, rain, and hail, post office staffers persevered. Linnen said he worked through two hurricanes and a half dozen blizzards, walking to the post office. Customers, he said, came to the post office by snowmobile and horseback to collect their mail. "I was there for them," he said.
Linnen, whose wife Renee is a nurse, has two children, Brian and Christopher. Active in the Riverhead Fire Department like his father before him, Linnen said he takes pride in seeing his son follow in his footsteps. He's also active in the Riverhead Republican Club, in community organizations such as the Elks and Moose Lodges and with giving back at his church, St. Isidore's.
With the United States Postal Service heading in a new direction, Linnen decided to accept an incentive to retire.
But he's definitely not ready to hang up his proverbial hat. "I'm too young to sit at home. I've worked all my life," he said. "Dedicated, hard work, that's what I believe keeps a person alive."
In the meantime, Linnen is enjoying sleeping late for the first time in over 40 years, and is tackling projects including yard work and cleaning out the garage.
While he's not sure what his next job will be, Linnen is certain he'll be working with the public. "I love people," he said.
Looking back on his 30 years, Linnen has a farewell for his loyal patrons: "Thanks for the memories," he said. "They last forever."
Residents who stopped Linnen to say hello and wish him well on Friday echoed a similar sentiment: "We miss you," said one longtime patron.
Added Riverhead resident Kathy Berezny, "Congratulations, Mark, on your retirement. I hope you enjoy your new endeavors, whatever they will be. I am sure you will be missed by all your patrons; they simply loved you."
To the new officer in charge at the Aquebogue post office, Sandy Szczpanik, Linnen offered some sage advice: "Keep the mail coming," he said. "And keep smiling."