January 5, 2022

Grateful for His Years of Service, Riverside Residents Honor Mailman

WISHING HIM WELL: The Riverside neighborhood turned out in force last week to say goodbye to longtime postal carrier Mike Downes, who retired after almost three decades delivering their mail and much more.

By Anne Levin

With Mike Downes as their mail carrier over the past 29 years, residents of Princeton’s Riverside neighborhood have been spoiled.

Downes knew everyone on his route. He stopped to chat with people suffering from COVID-19 fatigue. He brought newspapers from driveways up to doorways. He shoveled snow when people were out of town. He picked them up at the airport. He was always cheerful.

When word got out that Downes, 66, was about to retire, neighbors wanted to give him a proper send-off. Carol Prevost of Lake Drive got the idea to organize a drive-through farewell at Riverside Elementary School, planning it for last Thursday, December 30, the day before Downes’ final day of work. Despite having a house full of family for the holidays, Prevost made and distributed flyers, assisted by her daughter and two little granddaughters, around the neighborhood.

She expected about 15 cars to show up. But more than 50 vehicles — bikes included — many decorated with colorful signs, turned out to bid Downes farewell.

“I was quite nervous, since I realized that many of my friends and neighbors were away for the holidays, and I worried that there might only be five of us,” Prevost wrote in an email. “I did receive 15 email responses, so that was somewhat reassuring, but I had actually hoped for 25. Imagine my surprise and delight when over 50 cars lined up at the Riverside School parking lot to drive down to Longview Circle and there pay tribute to Mike!”

Speaking by phone a few days later from his home in Mount Holly, Downes was touched, but humble. “I found out about the little parade two days before,” he said. “It was pretty amazing. It was very heartfelt. But I didn’t do anything special to deserve it. I just approached it all those years as doing the job right.”

His customers, in numerous emails, give him a lot more credit.

“In a really delightful way, Mike is like a throwback from a bygone era when neighbors had personal interactions with their mailman,” said Susyn Berger of McCosh Circle. “He’s central casting’s version of everyone’s favorite mailman.  Mike’s warmth, friendliness, and caring nature was always such a welcome
presence in our daily lives, and he will be sorely missed.  At one point, when Mike knew we were coming back from a long trip, he shoveled our driveway to make it more accessible!  His many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness created a bond with so many of us who were fortunate to have him in our lives.”

Resident Tasha O’Neill had been recently widowed when Downes took over the route. “He had a patient ear for my stories of moving on with my life and finally meeting a man with whom I shared 17 years until he, too, died of cancer,” she said. ”When you work from home and are alone, seeing ever-cheerful Mike and having a two-minute update on our lives was a treat. His professionalism was unparalleled, and we will be lucky to get a new carrier who is only half as capable as Mike. I had his personal cell phone number for alerting him if the date of holding my mail was changed. He simply cared about what he was doing, and did it in the most cheerful manner possible.”

“Mike seems to have an intuitive sense of what is going on with the families whose mail he delivers,” said Eva Gossman of Maclean Circle. “I will always remember his kindness and compassion during the first few weeks of this year. I wish him Godspeed and happy golfing.”

Dr. Bill Green of Lake Drive said that seeing Downes’ face was a daily joy. “He brought knowledge of the neighborhood to us all, introducing us to newcomers, and being the glue holding the entire area together,” he said. “No matter what your connections, he made new ones for us. I sure will miss his daily smile, his skills, his suggestions, and his sense of self-deprecating humor.”

Downes spent his early years in Brooklyn, N.Y. When he was 13, he moved with his family to New Jersey after his father’s company was relocated to Philadelphia. Downes drove a truck for a while before deciding to take the U.S. Postal Service test, and passed. He became a mail carrier in 1987.

Along the way, he began a side business running a car service. “I had worked part-time at A-1 [Limousine], and then people on my route started asking me about rides,” he said. “I’ll keep that up. I’ve told them, if they want to see me, go on a trip!”

Among Downes’ enthusiastic passengers is Marlaine Lockheed of Lake Drive. “My job and our vacations involved frequent international travel, for which we used Mike’s car service to/from the airport,” she said. “There is nothing better for curing jet lag than seeing Mike in the arrivals area, welcoming you home with a big hug, just as if you were family.”

“Should we be traveling again, he will be at the top of our list to call for transportation,” wrote Marsha and Eliot Freeman of Hemlock Circle. “We wish him well in his retirement; we will miss seeing his smiling face.”

Jane Borns of Knoll Drive described Downes as “an amiable and conscientious soul, always open for a discussion about life. [The] only postal carrier I’ve know who read The Economist. His positive outlook was sorely welcome during the past two years of homebound life. Last fun fact: Mike is a scotch aficionado — peaty or non-peaty. It’s all good. Such a gift to us all.”

After one day of retirement, Downes said he was feeling fine. “My wife is scared I’m going to drive her nuts,” he said with a laugh. “We’re up and down about whether we’ll be moving or staying. I’ll play golf. I have to keep my same number of steps I did on my route — at least 10,000. I used to do 15,000 to 17,000 a day.”

Mail route or no mail route, Its likely that Downes will be staying in touch with many of his former customers. “I’m so thoroughly thankful to them,” he said. “They’ve become more than customers to me. They’ll become friends. I’m honored.”