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A long career of special deliveries

Oregon City's first female letter carrier retires after 38 years
by: raymond rendleman The first city female letter carrier, Carole VanDomelen smiles as she heads out on one of her last shifts before retiring from the U.S. Postal Service.

A lot has changed since Carole VanDomelen started as the first female Oregon City letter carrier in May 1973.

In 1973, Oregon City had about one third of its 30,000 population and a much smaller land area. That year, Oregon City's Post Office was downtown, where it succumbed to the Willamette Valley Flood of 1996 and subsequently moved up the hill on Molalla Avenue. A regular postage stamp cost 38 years ago just 8 cents instead of the current 44 cents.

But an end to the prejudice against women was the most significant change VanDomelen, now 58, experienced during the period. Reflecting on her career just before her retirement day Dec. 3, she was proudest of role as pioneer in the field.

In the mid-'70s, those who thought it 'unseemly' for women to walk into businesses barred her from delivering to Main Street. The few businesses along her route installed outdoor mailboxes so that she wouldn't enter. One of her early supervisors put two bricks in the bottom of her mailbag and followed her around with a stopwatch as she trudged up and down her especially hilly route.

'I felt that I had to work twice as hard just to prove myself,' she said. 'The thought back then was that a woman couldn't physically do the job, and 'walking the streets' for a woman just sounded bad.'

A 1971 Oregon City High School grad, VanDomelen soon developed rapport with her South End customers who loved her for a keen eye and gentle touch. She liked getting to know the people on her route, and kept tabs on countless children from birth, to buying preschool raffle tickets from them five years later, to adulthood.

She watched for stickers in the mailboxes of older residents and would call family if they didn't pick up their mail. One elderly widower on her route, she recalled tearfully, would always dress up nicely and wait for her by his mailbox.

'He would have his hand in the mailbox, and every day I would pat his hand as I dropped the mail in and ask him how he's doing,' she said. 'One day I came and he told me, crying, 'I have to go to the nursing home, but I want you to know that you're the only person who would ever touch me now.' '

Now almost half of the workers for the U.S. Postal Service are women, many of whom have top positions. Why didn't VanDomelen, a member of the prestigious 'Million Mile Club' for no at-fault crashes, use her clout as a 'first female' to rise in the ranks?

'She's too smart for that, and she has that relationship with her customers that she wouldn't want to give up in management,' said Monique Evans, a supervisor at the Oregon City Post Office.

Also, she took a $500-a-year pay cut from her job at Clackamas County to get out in the fresh air. Ironically, she turned from 'draftsman' for the county to another gendered title as a 'female mailman,' before the gender neutral title 'letter carrier' was developed.

'I was stubborn - I just liked the job, and where else can you work in the office three hours and then be outside for the rest of the day?' she asked.

The worst part of the job, she noted, was always political season when advertisements were particularly difficult to deal with and more likely to give paper cuts. She notices that the cold bothers her more now that she's older and she has a harder time staying warm.

She's looking forward to a cozy holiday season at her West Linn home with her two kids and two grandkids, with one more grandchild on the way. Then she'll try to forget about life by traveling to the Grand Canyon and Iceland, but she still worries about the future of the nation's postal service.

'There's something special about getting something in the mail, but nobody really writes letters anymore,' she said. 'The problem is were trying to run the postal service like a business, and if we want the post offices still to be everywhere, something is going to have to change.'

One thing won't change: She'll continue to bake the sweets that she's always enjoyed trading with residents of Oregon City. She grew up spending most of her time in Kelly Field, where passing cabooses would throw candy out for children.