UNION GAP — “Come on down,” Tom Horrell calls out to the next customer in line on a recent, busy morning.

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It’s a common greeting on a daily basis for this uncommon clerk at the Union Gap Post Office on Main Street. Not for much longer, however. Horrell, 64, will retire next week after more than 38 years with the Postal Service.

While he says he will miss working with customers, it is they, it seems, who will miss him more.

“There’s not that many people like him,” said Jennifer Hoff, who lives in West Valley but works for the city of Union Gap. “He’s that hometown-know-your-name kind of guy.”

He is that, and he works hard at it, while at the same time taking care of all the office duties as the only clerk. For him, customer service is a passion.

“If a customer comes in more than once or twice, I get to know them,” Horrell said.

He orchestrates the course of business at this smallish satellite postal office with its banks of postal boxes. Under rows of windows stand old oak tables customers use to fill out forms. The tables are a link to the Postal Service’s long history.

Horrell carries on a running dialogue with customers — often punctuated with a hearty laugh — beyond how soon they want a package to arrive at its destination or whether a Christmas card contains enough postage. He will ask how things are at home and where a customer will eat lunch.

Paul Karn was at the post office to mail some calendars on a recent day.

“He’s always cheerful and takes the time to help. If you were at another post office, you would not get the personal service,” he said. “He always has something nice to say. I wouldn’t go to any other post office.”

Customer Phyllis Pulse expressed disappointment that Horrell will be retiring. She and her husband live in Tampico but have a horse farm on Ahtanum Road in Union Gap.

“He is a wealth of information,” she said. “If you want to know something, you stop by the post office.”

They recently chatted about the deer in her yard and Pulse learned from Horrell that ticks are a problem in the elk herds.

Horrell has been with the Postal Service since 1974. Back then, the main post office was located at what is now the William O. Douglas Federal Building on South Third Street in Yakima. He figures he is one of the last current employees to have worked at the federal building before the main post office moved to its current location at South Third and West Washington avenues.

The post office has come a lot farther in more than a geographical sense. He remembers first-class mail arriving in large green bags. The bags’ contents would be dumped out on a large table for hand sorting.

Now, thanks to technology, machines can read 40,000 addresses and zip codes per hour. Even with the adoption of technology, the Postal Service faces an uncertain financial future with mounting losses approaching $16 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 as the volume of first-class mail continues to decline in the face of the Internet and email. Part of the financial issue is a congressional requirement that the service, an independent agency, prefund retirements.

Cost-cutting has hit home: The local mail processing center at West Washington and South Third avenues is scheduled to be relocated to Spokane in 2014, which could mean the loss of up to 19 jobs.

But Horrell is optimistic about the future of the post office even though there may be changes in hours and continued talk of ending Saturday delivery, a topic that has been around for many years.

“It will be difficult. The post office will be there. It will survive,” he says. “We will adjust to the needs of the public.”

Customers come first

Horrell emphasizes providing good customer service. He tries to get to know his customers. And he has lots of them.

“This office is used a lot. You don’t realize how many people cut through here from the Lower Valley. It’s convenient,” he says.

Horrell, who lives in Selah with his wife Margene, a rural route carrier who will retire in early January, is a lifelong Valley resident. He grew up in Terrace Heights and graduated from East Valley High School in 1967. After a stint at what is now Yakima Valley Community College, he served four years in the Air Force. He applied at the post office after he got out of the service and became a clerk.

He took over the clerk’s position at the Union Gap Post Office in 2002 to fill a vacancy. As a senior clerk, he was given the first opportunity to take the job.

“You have to be an old guy to get here,” he says with his customary laugh.

As the only postal employee, organization is critical. He arrives for work at 8:30 a.m. each day and opens the doors 15 minutes later. Most of the morning is taken up placing mail in the nearly 400 postal boxes and helping customers.

“You have to be motivated because of all the things involved in the job. You have to stay on top of it,” he says. “If you get behind, it gets to be a nightmare.”

He’s responsible for everything that goes on at the Union Gap Post Office.

“I’m the snow removal guy. That’s one of the perks,” he adds.

He closes the post office for an hour at 12:30 p.m. each day for lunch.

Horrell says he will take some time to travel after he retires and will spend more time with his wife than at any time during their 42 years of marriage. He says it is a good time to retire. Certainly, he says he will miss the customers.

“It is a nice company to work for. I have no complaints,” he says. “The post office has been good to me and given me a lot of opportunities. I enjoy the work. You can’t ask for more than that.”

• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or dlester@yakimaherald.com.