For Bill Olave, a letter carrier of 30 years, delivering mail door to door in the northwest section of Ridgewood is not a life of routine or drudgery but one of joy. With an infectious smile and a heart filled with cheer, those along his route say that in a world where people often disconnect from one another and rely on social media to fill the void, this postal worker is a unique and unifying presence that reaffirms a sense of humanity and community in all their lives.
Photo courtesy of Dick Davies
For his many friends – they refuse to label themselves as mere postal customers – Olave, tall, lanky and 56, is a key presence in their neighborhoods because he’s a people person, they say. On a route that covers eight residential streets, two local schools and a number of houses of worship, Olave knows each postal patron by name, their family histories, their joys and their sorrows because he has gone out of his way to meet them, greet them and most importantly, connect with them on an emotional level by offering a listening and compassionate ear.
“He’s not just our mailman,” said Gwenn Hauck, a Fairmount Road resident, community activist and former village council member. “He’s seen our kids grow up and shared in our lives because he’s cared enough to embrace us all as friends and not just stops on a mail route,” she said.
Still, after 17 years of making lasting friendships, his route is coming to an end. Olave has been reassigned to another route in Ridgewood and Wednesday, Jan 17th will be his last day delivering to so many long-time friends.
To show their appreciation for always going the extra mile for their community, Hauck and her neighbors have organized a gathering for Olave Wednesday evening at St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall on Fairmount Road.
“It’s not a going away party for Bill,” said Hauck, “just a celebration of all that he has done for us and a chance to show him what he means to us all and how he’s touched our lives.”
His friends say that special touch of humanity has endeared him in countless ways. He remembers birthdays and anniversaries, the pride in parents when their children have done well in school and have been accepted to colleges. Over the span of a minute or two at any one stop, he has shared their fears when the economy would fall flat and some faced layoffs and downsizing, all the while helping them through their anxieties. His friends called them quick pep talks. And he, they would say, insisted he was just being a good, caring friend there to both listen and advise.
Pied Piper of Pooches
If there’s one thing Olave has passed on, many say, it’s a delightful lesson in overcoming adversity. Many mail carriers on their utility belts carry a spray to ward off menacing canines. On Olave’s belt is a sack filled with dog biscuits and treats, all matched according to the size of neighborhood hounds.
“You can almost set your watch by it,” said Dick Davies, a longtime Fairmount Road resident. “Down the street you’ll hear a bark, followed by another, then another. And there will be Bill, with a procession of dogs following after, all of them dancing and twirling with delight as he offers them a treat. It’s almost magical and I’m convinced they think his purpose in life is to visit them and share a treat and that dropping envelopes into mail boxes is just an aside,” he said.
“One day, I found a lost dog at my doorstep and didn’t know quite what to do,” said John Hartnett, who’s served as rector at St. Elizabeth’s for the past 25 years. He said Olave came along for his usual delivery and listened to his friend’s plight.
“’Oh, this one? That’s so-and-so’s dog,’ Bill said to me while patting him on the head and slipping him a treat. ‘Come on and we’ll make sure he gets home so no one worries,’” Hartnett recalled.
For Sara Marra, a Morningside Road resident, she will always remember Olave’s heartfelt understanding of the innocence of youth.
“You know, my kids are older now but when he came around, he always had a lollipop for them and their smile alone was his thanks,” she said. Leading up to Christmas over the years, Olave would make a point of texting Marra in advance when packages for her children were on his van. Distracting her children, she would intercept the packages with a wink from Olave and “for a long time we kept the thought of Santa Claus going” with gifts appearing under the tree magically and not landing unwrapped on the front porch.”
Marra said Olave’s attention to detail is legendary and she would always dread when he took time out for vacation. “Invariably, I would wind up getting someone else’s mail from whoever was covering his route,” Marra said.
Olave’s place in the community was also captured on film, neighbors say. When the 2012 movie “Bad Parents,” starring Janeane Garofolo was filmed in part on location in Ridgewood, Olave was cast as – what else? – the postman and in one scene is pictured delivering mail in the background.
“I think he even got a screen credit for that. At the very least, he got bragging rights,” said Hartnett.
Around the holidays, neighbors say, Olave has graciously accepted homemade cookies and cards bearing notes of cheer, but it’s a handshake of thanks and a pat on the back – a sense of being recognized and appreciated – that he cherishes most.
In an age when many view others who work hard to provide a service as “invisible,” a simple thank you is all the more rewarding for those who go out of their way to make a difference, said Hauck.
Many along Olave’s route say his compassion for those he serves has reaffirmed their own sense of humanity.
One particular family recently faced a heart-breaking tragedy but soon came to understand they were not alone.
Brian Fitzgerald of Glenwood Road said that he and his family have known Olave for many years and were always touched by his kind nature. Brian’s wife Kathy shared a special bond with Olave and often chatted about life’s ups and downs and the joy of raising children. Last year, when Kathy, 48, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, it struck Olave hard. As her health deteriorated and she entered into hospice care at home, said Fitzgerald, she would ask that Olave stop by and chat, even for just a few minutes. He would oblige, always offering words of encouragement. Their brief talks were upbeat and genial as he held her hand, sharing a laugh or two that raised both their spirits and those of her husband and her three children, Colin, 14, and twins Finn and Teagan, 9.
“Bill treated Kathy with the utmost dignity and respect, always finding a way of carving out a few minutes to spend some time and brighten her day,” said Fitzgerald, 48. “When Kathy needed to be transported to the hospital by ambulance,” Olave was there as a liaison to the neighbors, answering questions about her condition and squelching any rumors.
When Kathy died last October, Olave made a point of being at the Fitzgeralds’ side at both her wake and funeral, passing on to family members how their loved one had inspired him to be a better person and live life, each and every precious day, to the fullest.
“Bill has taught us that relationships have value,” said Hartnett. “It’s about respecting the dignity of each and every human being. It’s a lesson of faith like no other.”
Hartnett, echoing the thoughts of many of his neighbors, said that in a complicated world, “It’s all too easy to lose track of the human condition that binds us all together. Community means looking out for one another and it all comes down to what we find in our hearts.”
Paraphrasing a line from the delightful 1940’s stage play “Harvey” by Mary Chase, Olave’s friends say, like the play’s lead character, Elwood P. Dowd, Bill lives by a tenet they can all learn from: ‘In this life, one can be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. For many years I was oh so smart. I much prefer being oh so pleasant.’
“Bill has always set a wonderful example that a smile and a kind word goes a long way,” said Hartnett. “If that’s part of his legacy, then he has indeed enriched us all.”