On April Fool’s Day, way back in 1968, Penn State student Mike Herr started working the night shift at the Fraser Street Post Office. Forty-four years later, he’s keeping the joke going.
Known for his quick wit and Penn State enthusiasm, Mike the Mailman has achieved celebrity status around campus and was recently featured on CBS News. Thirty-nine years after taking the campus post, Mike is as happy as ever, and if the rumors of his immortality are true, he’s going to be happy for a long time.
“I’m, so I’m told, on the sunset of my career. I don’t know, I’ve been told that,” he told me when I visited the on-campus McAllister Building post office last week.
“It’s funny. My wife retired last year, she was a teacher for 33 years. Now when we are out, everyone sees me and asks, ‘When are YOU going to retire?’ It got to the point where now I just say, ‘2023.’ I’ll be 55 then. And then I just walk away. Well, they can try to do the math,” Herr said.
Well, Mike, you’re not doing much to dispel those immortality rumors, are you?
“I like what I do. I don’t know how many people like their jobs but I really do,” Herr said. “To me, it’s fun. Everyone keeps you in the mix.”
The first thing you notice when you walk into the campus Post Office is the rather unorthodox wallpaper that is made out of posters, letters, and signs. If you ask him about those posters, Mike will take you back to the days of yore — back when the unconventional wallpaper wasn’t appreciated by everyone.
“I like to refer to it as the Great Rally of 2000,” Herr said with a laugh.
In early 2000, the Post Office in State College got a new Postmaster who didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with Herr on the decor.
“The first thing the new Postmaster said was, ‘Oh, those things on the walls have got to go.’ I had a partner back then and he said the most truthful thing he’s said in his entire life. He said to her, ‘I think that’s going to be a bad idea,’” Herr said.
He was right. When news spread that the posters were coming down, the new Postmaster learned very quickly how important Mike and his posters were to the school.
“There was a rally. They marched from the University Park Post Office to the State College Post Office. They had signs and cameras and all sorts of stuff,” Herr said. “Former President Graham Spanier wrote her a letter. The Student Government got involved and talked to her and the posters went back up.”
In fact, according to Faculty Senate meeting minutes from 2000, even President Spanier was envious of Mike the Mailman’s fame:
“I started off the letter saying I wish as President of Penn State, that I was the most popular person on campus, but alas I’m not, it’s Mike “the mailman” and here’s why. Then I proceeded to talk about that a little bit. As someone who runs a bureaucracy, I know there are rule books around, I also am the son of a postmaster, and I understand that the U.S. government’s rule book is about as thick as they come. But you know, come on. Anyway, I have a letter on the way. I want to share that when people write me letters, they are not ignored. I hope that’s the case with my letter too, that it won’t be ignored, but we’ll see.”
“I like the Post Office, but I’ve never been their favorite son. I’m sort of a rebel,” said Herr in a tone that would suggest that he might be just a little bit proud of that. “I’m in exile now, but I love it. I’m so far removed from a real Post Office, I just tell everyone that I go to work everyday at the park. University Park!”
Hidden among the posters in the campus Post Office you will see a sign that says “Full Service Zone,” and Mike really does deliver the full service experience.
“I feel like I’m a counselor to some people, and that’s great! I try to be really positive for the kids and you wouldn’t believe how many people come in here to talk. That little sign says full service zone — that’s exactly what this is,” Herr said.
He also claims to be quite the matchmaker.
“I see a lot of people come and go, I have a pretty good eye.”
If you need a date for Valentine’s Day, Mike will do his best, but it might cost you a slice or two of pizza; he likes thin crust. If you are feeling ambitious you could even enter Mike the Mailman’s Cookie of the Month contest.
“It came about 28 years ago. A woman sent me cookies so I sent her a postcard and hoped that her husband wouldn’t get mad. She came in the next day and said, ‘Oh, we love the postcard!’ so I thought maybe I’d start a contest,” Herr said.
There’s some criteria for the contest, but it’s fairly simple:
4. No chocolate.
“If you’re going to have a contest, it’s too easy with chocolate. I want it to be a challenge,” Herr said.
Unfortunately, 28 years of judging a cookie contest takes its toll on a man’s health.
“I hesitate to mention this, but in the years I’ve been doing this, I gained three pounds. I might have to cut back,” Herr said.
As everyone knows, behind every great man is a woman. Mike is no exception, but part of what makes him such a great guy is that he has a whole pack of women in his life.
“I have two great sisters. I have a lovely, lovely wife who’s a saint and two great daughters. I can’t believe how good they are. How could I be down?” Herr said. “I had really great parents. Mom and Dad were the best. I’ve been blessed with a great family and they make it all come together.”
When he’s not manning the Post Office, you can still see Mike the Mailman around town. Whether it’s attending THON to hand out dancer mail or going to a Penn State sporting event, Mike has done it all over the years.
“[My wife and I] go to all the sporting events. Football, basketball, hockey, wrestling — you name it,” Herr said. “I really love Penn State. When we go to away football games, I’m always talking Penn State up. Those other towns aren’t like State College.”
Though he goes to all the games, and is even a USTA (United States Tennis Association) official, Mike’s take on sports reflect his positive energy in the Post Office.
“I’m not interested in who wins the game. Either way you get to see two good teams play. You see people who look like they’re dying because their team lost — that’s not me. The beer tastes just as good whether you win or lose,” Herr said.
In the 39 years that Mike has been “the Mailman” at Penn State, he says he’s noticed some changes in the students.
“They’re more serious or something. Now they do the texting and stuff with their phones, but you have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” Herr said. “A lot of kids get mad when I don’t wait on them when they’re on their cell phones. I say you should know better, but, hey, if their parents teach them, then I’m not going to! I know there’s a lot going on with these kids. There are so many pressures from all of the different medias. I’m glad I’m not growing up now. I just hope that the one or two minutes they’re in front of me can be lighter.”
If you’re in line at the Post Office and look a bit stressed, you’re probably going to get flashed Mike’s neon sign that says “Relax.”
“They usually laugh,” Herr said, “but if they’re with a friend, the friend ALWAYS laughs.”
He’s hardly ever serious, but his jokes come from a good place and a genuine compassion for the students.
“I just try to have fun and make them see that maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. But they’ll learn that as they grow. You can’t just pick that up on that from the mailman, but maybe they’ll learn something. Down the road, maybe they’ll say the mailman was right. I hope they do.”