Q&A with Mike Herr, aka 'Mike the Mailman'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the nearly half century since he joined the U.S. Postal Service, Mike Herr — better known to the Penn State community as “Mike the Mailman” — has become a campus icon during his stint manning the post office on the University Park campus.

On April 1 — exactly 48 years to the day he started — Herr will postmark his final letter and retire.

Herr discusses his decision to retire, his Penn State experience and his future plans:

Q. What do you think of people’s reaction to the news of your retirement?

Some gal came in today and said, “Mike, you’ve made a huge impression on me. I saw you downtown one time and you hugged me, you were really nice. I read in the paper you were going to leave and I thought I should bring you some cookies.” I’m just surprised by people’s response to the news that I’m retiring. I’m really touched by that. I’m not usually an emotional guy. Some guy came in today and asked, “Do you mind if I hug you?” And I said, ‘No, I don’t mind.’ He said, “You’ve been very good to me.” It’s so nice that that happened. I don’t do email, but my wife does. I’m getting a lot of response from the newspaper stories. My daughter said my retirement story on Onward State had 3,400 likes. I said, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ Someday I’ll learn what that means. She said, “Dad, that’s a lot.”

Q. At the start of your career, you thought that you might work for the postal service for five years before moving on to something else. If you had stuck with that plan, how would you envision the rest of your career?

I don’t know. I’m a homebody. I was born in Lock Haven and I’ve always been in the Centre Region. Everyone talks about traveling here and there, but I’m happy just to stay. I would have done something close by, but I don’t know what that could have been.

Q: At what point did you become “Mike the Mailman?”

When I first started working here, I was just Mike — Mike Herr. A lot of people don’t know my last name. When I began, there was another guy working here and he was in charge. I just did what I was supposed to do. Four or five years after he retired, I changed the whole personality of the post office in my own way. Someone brought a poster in one day, and I thought it might be a good idea to put some posters up of Penn State people or events. Then all of a sudden, someone said, “Mailman, you do a good job.” And I thought, ‘That’s a clever name. I can be better known as “Mike the Mailman” versus “Mike the Clerk.”’ It had a better ring to it. I didn’t want to create this — it just happened.

Mike the Mailman at stand for state

In January of this year Mike Herr, better known as Mike the Mailman, conversed with students and posed for pics in the Stand for State Balloon Room, a safe space for students and University leaders to connect.

Image: Bill Zimmerman

Q. What’s the most fulfilling part about being Mike the Mailman?

I think it’s the interaction with all the students, faculty and staff. I’ve maintained a lot of friendships with people who have retired or have left the University, whether they are faculty, staff or students. I keep in contact with people. They invite me to their weddings, they invite me to this party or that party. It’s funny — no matter where I go, there are always other alumni there and once someone starts telling a story about me, someone else starts telling a story about me. They’ll say, “I remember when you did this or that” — stuff that I can’t remember that I did, but they remembered. It’s happened so many times. It’s unbelievable.

Q. What’s the strangest or most unusual thing a customer has ever asked you to mail?

There’s been a lot of different things. There was a plastic Easter egg. A customer had something like 15 of these plastic Easter eggs with addresses on them. She asked, “Can we mail these?” And I said, ‘No you can’t mail them without a stamp.’ She said, “I know that, but can we mail them?” I said, ‘Sure.’ They weren’t wrapped. They were just Easter eggs and she taped them. We sent those all around the country. She came in two weeks later and said, “Everyone got their Easter eggs.” One guy sent a beach ball once. I said, ‘Are you going to put it in a box?’ He said, “Do I have to put it in a box?” You probably do, but I mailed it anyway. The beach ball got to wherever he was sending it in the United States.

Q. One of the things that’s made the University Park post office experience special is the signs you’ll often flash to customers, such as “nice sneakers.” What’s your most popular sign?

I’ve made a lot of signs over the years, but the most popular sign over the last four or five years is my “relax” sign. I have it in 60 different languages. Just today, a woman from China came in who was very nervous. She said, “This is my first time.” I showed her my sign in her language — Chinese — and she loved it. She became more relaxed. Some girl from Turkey just came in and I did it to her. She said, “How do you know this?” A couple of weeks ago, I had a couple of guys from Iran come in. I showed them the sign and they went crazy. The next day, they brought their roommate in and wanted me to show them that sign. They couldn’t believe it. It works because it does two things: it makes them laugh and it also makes them relax. I feel like I’m a psychologist sometimes. It has worked brilliantly. When I see someone that I don’t have a language for, I ask, ‘Could you write this for me in your language?’ It’s simple and silly, but it works. Over the years, I’ve seen faculty, staff and students under a lot more pressure, stressed out about things. So I’ve always said, ‘If they’re going to be here two, three, four minutes, make it light for the people, make it enjoyable for these people. I think they appreciate my lightheartedness. I hope they do.

Mike the Mailman at parade

Mike the Mailman, along with his partner Don the Mail Guy, were honorary Grand Marshall's at Penn State's 2007 Homecoming Parade.

Image: Annemarie Mountz

Q. You’ve delivered mail to THON, been part of students’ theatrical performances and participated in Homecoming. How did you become such an integral part of campus life?

I don’t know. I’ve always been here. Maybe longevity does it. After Steve Hartman did that “On the Road” segment for CBS, I think everyone and their brother must have seen that. And everything seemed to snowball after that. I think it’s because I’m readily available and everybody knows me. To me it’s fun. I like going to these events they put on. I’ve had a good time. I’ll have more time to do that now.

Q. You’ve been a part of the Penn State and local community for quite a long time and you’ve seen a lot of changes. What, in your opinion, has been the biggest change?

I think the kids today seem to be more serious about things than kids in previous generations. I think there’s more pressure on kids today. I can sense that they’re pressed to do this or pressed to do that. I just think there’s more pressure on the kids these days.

Q. A lot of students look up to you and turn to you for advice. Who does Mike the Mailman look up to?

I really think my wife, Mary Kathleen Herr —a lot of her friends call her “Mary,” I just call her “Katie” — is so insightful on a lot of things. She’s such a good person to begin with. I like where she comes from and how we communicate with one other. I admire her very much, I really do.

Q. What advice would you give to the students now as they prepare to embark on their careers?

I would say — because I’m a family person — don’t underestimate your family because your family has a big impact. Listen to what your parents have to say because they’ve been there. The experience your family’s had could help you in your decisions. That’s what I would say. It’s all about the family. I can’t imagine not having my wife and two children.

Q. What made you think now is a good time to retire, on the 48th anniversary of your start with the post office?

It’s something my wife Katie and I had been discussing for a while. We talk four or five years out. To me, the numbers 10, 20, 30, etc. don’t mean anything. It just seemed like the right time. Last year, I said to Katie, 'April 1, 2016.' She was happy, I was happy, our daughters were happy. It was just right.

Bidding Mike the Mailman farewell

Mike Herr, known to the Penn State community as "Mike the Mailman," talks about how he's loved serving the campus at the University Park post office for the bulk of his 48-year postal career. Herr will retire from the postal service on April 1.

Curt Parker

Q. What are your plans after you retire?

We have a daughter in Philadelphia, so we’re going to visit her more often. I do what I call “landscaping” at my house — landscapers might not call it that, but that’s what I do. I play tennis. My wife and I are going to hit the courts more. We’re going to ride bikes. I’m just happy sitting on the front porch drinking an iced tea or something.

Q. You’ve also said that one of your post-retirement goals is to write a book. What gave you the idea and what do you plan to write about?

My wife and daughters said, “You’ve been here such a long time, you probably have a lot to say about the people and the experiences you’ve had here.” So about eight or nine months ago, we started. It takes a while to do that, but I think it’d be a fun thing to do. It’d be nice to reminisce about some of the things that have happened and some of the people who I’ve met. I think it’d be like a coffee table book. Once we find a publisher to give us direction, that would be cool. I think a lot of kids who have graduated would enjoy it.

Q. Before you retire, is there something about Mike the Mailman that people don’t know about that you think they should be aware of?

Well, I graduated third in my class in high school. But there were only 11 people. I think I might have been a close second.

Q. What advice would you give to your successor?

I would just tell them to embrace it and enjoy your customers. Just have fun with it. Try to be as helpful as you can. Be as compassionate as you can. A lot of these kids come to me and don’t know how to mail a letter or a package in this era of email. I’m just amazed at how many people don’t know how to do that. I would tell them, just be patient with these young kids because they are our future — it’s the post office’s future, too. I’ve always tried to make the kids feel comfortable.

Q. What will you miss the most?

I’m going to miss the people, the interaction with the people. I think the people are great here. That’s why it’s “Happy Valley.” This is a unique town — I think it’s the best town. I love it here. I’m just happy I landed here.

Q. How do you want people to remember you after you retire from the post office?

I just hope they always had good experiences with me and they appreciate that I tried to help them. I hope that they remember me as a nice guy who tried to help people. I’ve had a ball doing this.

Last Updated April 11, 2016