Going to the Telluride post office may never be the same. The postal worker with the easy smile and bright blue eyes who’s greeted visitors by their first names for two decades — the one USPS worker who’s never, not once, been disgruntled — is retiring soon.
“Postman Jim” Looney’s last day of government employment is Oct. 27. By then, he’ll have served for 20 years and two days.
As longtime local Kaiulani Schuler posted on Facebook recently, “The nicest person in Telluride is retiring! What will we do without him? Is there anyone who has crossed his path that hasn’t shaken their head and asked, ‘How can one person be so nice?’”
Then, Schuler made sure to let everyone know there’ll be a farewell party for Looney from 5-8 p.m. Oct. 28 at Esperanza’s.
“Let’s get together and show him how much we love him and appreciate the relentlessly great customer service he has given us for years,” Schuler urged.
Why is Looney considered the nicest man in Telluride? There’s not much competition for the title, for one. For two, Looney greets most customers by name, flashing an astounding memory for sobriquets and P.O. box numbers. As Looney put it during a Tuesday interview with the Daily Planet, “It’s weird to me that I can remember names and numbers because I grew up on a farm in Postville, Iowa, not seeing anybody except the mailman and veterinarian. We would name cows on the farm, but I didn’t know I could remember human names so well.”
Looney, 66, spent 22 years working his own dairy and hog farm in northeast Iowa before moving to Colorado in the mid-’90s. “I was working as a contractor hauling mail between” towns on the Western Slope, he said, when the Montrose postmaster urged him to take the test necessary to work for the United States government inside a post office building.
He took the U.S. Postal Service test and did well, but there were no openings for staff in Montrose. A spot in Telluride opened, however, and Looney began commuting from Montrose to the former post office on Pine Street on Oct. 24, 1998.
“The postmaster then, Barbara Martin, told me ‘I have the perfect space for you in the new building,’” meaning the USPS store in the corner of the current space on Willow Street, and told the gregarious Looney, “This will be your little world.”
And so it did: Looney was and is often stationed in the corner selling stamps and Priority Mail envelopes. Over time, the bulletin board where he posted postcards, Christmas cards and graduation announcements from friendly customers grew to seven bulletin boards holding more than 150 paper greetings to the Nicest Man in Telluride.
A postmaster who followed Martin, however, took down the boards, telling Looney, “I’m getting guff from USPS headquarters because they want all the post offices to look the same.”
A week later, however, the postmaster returned Looney’s bulletin boards and greeting cards, explaining: “I can handle getting guff from my supervisors, but I can’t handle all the townspeople in Telluride giving me guff for taking the boards down.”
Longtime locals believe Telluride postal employees as a whole became kinder and gentler after Looney’s arrival; kind of a “smiling tide lifts all boats” effect. Yet Looney never saw himself as someone who’d work inside a government office.
“When you’re an Iowa farm boy,” he said, “you never go to a post office. I only went to ours once back then, to pick up a certified letter. I don’t even think I’d bought a stamp before.”
When Looney first started at the Telluride P.O., “We’d get 100 to 200 packages a day,” he said. “But thanks to Amazon.com, that number has skyrocketed to about 700.” He pointed to a healthy line before noon on an offseason October day. “Now we’re busy all the time, with 350 to 400 people a day coming through.”
Which makes Looney’s photographic memory all the more impressive. “I’d read the Telluride Daily Planet every day so I could learn the local names and events, and it kind of kept working for me. It’s not very often that I forget a name. The fun thing is when I don’t see someone for four or five years, but still remember their name.”
Looney has competed in the Imogene Pass Run 17 times since landing at the post office. “I noticed all the fit athletes here, realized there’s something special about all the people here and started training for running myself.”
Looney said he has intentionally not made many post-retirement plans other than enjoying this Christmas with his three adult children for the first time in 20 years — the holidays being, obviously, an incredibly busy time for postal workers.
“The thing I’ll miss most is the kids that come in,” he said. “I’ve grown up with a lot of these kids. I knew the high school graduates when they were babies.
“I’ll also miss doing passports. It’s always been so exciting to see people thrilled about their upcoming adventures.”
Looney anticipates “that I’ll be sad to take down the bulletin boards” with all their good wishes. “That will be a tough, tough thing. Because they won’t be going back up.”