Retirement may not end North Pole mail monitoring for Santa’s secretaryPublished 8:55am Wednesday, December 23, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Judy Dohm went to college to become an executive secretary.
Instead, she met her husband, Ed, and moved south from not exactly the North Pole, but from Honor, by Interlochen, to that eight-sided glass house elevated eight feet in the air a quarter-mile off M-51 in Pokagon.
Since she will be retiring from the U.S. postal service next Dec. 8, this was expected to be her last Christmas in the most prominent of her many secretarial duties promoting Pokagon Township Fire Department fish fries and Indian Lake Fire Department pancake breakfasts.
As she has been for 18 years at post offices in Edwardsburg and Dowagiac, Dohm not only answers mail addressed to “Santa, North Pole,” but her responses include small “gifts” and a personal tidbit or two.
“When I was working in Edwardsburg, they got Santa letters in. Nobody knew what to do with them, so they were going to throw them away. I said, ‘You can’t do that,’ so I started answering them because nobody else would.”
Her postal career began in Dowagiac, but after leaving for dairy farming, she rejoined the postal service in Edwardsburg in 1985.
She returned to Dowagiac “five or six years ago. They started ‘borrowing’ me when I was still in Edwardsburg.”
When not serving as Santa’s secretary, Dohm’s duties are as a “PTF clerk,” which stands for “part-time flexible.”
“I’m a career employee. I earn benefits, I earn sick leave, I earn vacation time and I am earning my retirement,” she explained after her shift ended at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“The emphasis is on the ‘flexible’ part. I’m not guaranteed 40 hours a week. I do not get paid for holidays unless I actually work on that holiday. But it’s great. My schedule is different every day.”
“This was my plan, for this (Christmas) to be my last” monitoring St. Nick’s mailbag, “but they’re trying to talk me into still doing the Santa letters. That may happen.”
As for what it entails, she usually receives about 40 letters, not only from Dowagiac, but from as far away as Kent City and Williamsburg.
“I have a lot of help,” she said. “Employees at the Dowagiac office take up a collection for me to help (buy) the stamps. Going in the letters this year are Christmas pencils. Ronda (Sullivan) at McDonald’s gave me coupons good for any item on the dollar menu. I get stickers. The boys this year get Spider-Man, the girls Lizzie McGuire. Little kids get Scooby Doo. Some years I’ve gotten stuff from Burger King and Taco Bell, it just depends.”
“Kids ask for more electronics” than when she started a generation ago, but one I did (Monday) had a list of what he wanted, but the kid also asked for a coat for his mom. I’ve had kids who, after everything they’ve listed, tell me what store you can get it at, to make sure you get the right thing. I turn half a dozen letters over to a church in Edwardsburg, which helps me. One year I got one from a girl I happened to know. She asked for an electric blanket, so she could keep her baby warm. A single mom, living in a mobile home. I gave that one to the church, and the church helped her out.”
“It’s not always happy,” she said. “Kids are so innocent, but they’ll ask for stuff and then go, ‘And I really need for my dad to have a job.’
“Sometimes I have to go with the carriers to track down who it is. The carriers are really, really good. When they pick up a Santa letter, they try to make sure the address is on it so I can answer it, but there are still letters that slip through. Then we go back and try to find out who it is, or I can’t read the name. I had one the other day, two letters from a brother and a sister. I could not make out (the girl’s) name, so I looked the name and address up in the phone book and called.”
The mom answered.
Dohm identified herself and told the woman what she was doing.
“She said, ‘You actually answer those letters?’ She gave me the name and was so excited. There are still trusting people out there.”
Her computer contains three variations of a letter, depending on the child’s age.
“I kind of keep track of repeats so I don’t send them the same letter every year,” Dohm said.
Not only does she personalize her correspondence with the child’s name, but there is a P.S. where she can really strengthen their faith.
“If it has the name of their town, it might say, ‘I was so glad to hear from my good friend, Derek. Flying over Dowagiac is one of my favorite places. I try to put something personal in the P.S. on every letter. I know a lot of kids through 4-H. One year, I put in the P.S., ‘It’s too bad your dog knocks you down like he does.’ He was 4. His mother knew, so she came back to me said his eyes had gotten so big. ‘Mom! Santa really does watch me!
“The sad ones are the ones the parents let the kid mail the letter, but they don’t put their name or address on it, so there’s absolutely nothing you can do with it. You don’t know how to reach them.
“Because of parents who know letters are answered and tell teachers, preschool classes have written.”
“Apparently, we’re the only office in the district” extending to Grand Rapids which puts “gifts” in letters.
“They had to register me with something,” which coincided with letters arriving from Kent City, near Big Rapids, and Williamsburg, near Traverse City.
An only child, she has “always loved Christmas. When my mom wanted a girl to do things with, I was a girl. When my dad wanted a boy to do things with, I was a boy.”
She grew up a quarter-mile from a cross-country riding and hiking trail.
“I could ride my horses all day long – we were surrounded by state land – without ever crossing private property. I loved horses and belonged to a saddle club. I never belonged to 4-H. It wasn’t prevalent, so I didn’t understand it.”
She loves working with children at the fair during her 28 years as a 4-H leader.
“I think 4-H is the greatest thing ever. It teaches the kids responsibility, it gives them something to do with their time, it gives them a multitude of friends who aren’t out here trying to see what they can get away with. It gives them goals and something to be proud of. There’s no better drug for anybody than to accomplish something and be proud of. It gives you such a high. We are always told what good workers our boys are.”
“I started out as a horse leader with Silver Spurs,” she said. “We built one of the barns at the fairgrounds. It was torn down just this last year and a new one was put up. Then, we switched. I got out of horses when we got into dairy. Our kids were old enough to start showing dairy and beef. Then they wanted dogs. They bought puppies out of the baby animal barn. Our club, M-40 Hustlers, had no dog leader so I became the dog leader. That kind of mushroomed when kids from other clubs that didn’t have dog leaders started coming.”
Before she knew it, she was dog superintendent.
“I had never shown a dog in my life,” she said, whereas she grew up riding horses.
“The deal is knowing people to go to to find your answers. I’m good at knowing people. As the kids got past my expertise, I turned it over to ladies who trained dogs. The past three to four years I’ve been helping Diane (Skibbe) in the office. Becky Moore always used me in places because she said she liked about me that wherever they needed somebody, they could plug me in and I’d pick it up real quick. I kind of float.”
She met Ed, who has served on the fair board and is a retired manufacturing engineer, at Ferris State University.
Her guidance counselor steered her into the executive secretarial program.
“Apparently, my school had plans for me,” Judy said, “but I didn’t want to stay in the area and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. My mother-in-law (the late Stella Dohm) got me in the post office. She came over one day and said, ‘I saw at the post office that they’re taking applications for the test.’ Who would have thought I would retire from there?
“When we got off the dairy farm, I drove Dial-a-Ride in Niles. A friend of ours at the Catholic school was the supervisor. Then I was called by (late Postmaster) Dan Brosnan. He needed a ‘casual’ to work for six months. He had me take the test again so I could transfer it to Edwardsburg.”
For a time she put her own work ethic to the test, working at the Dowagiac post office from 5 to 11 a.m., then driving in Niles from noon to 6 p.m.
Dohms used to live in the brick house closer to the highway.
“We lived in our motorhome in the barn in cold, snowy November and December the year we built the house,” she said. “The whole view changes eight feet in the air. The postmaster in Edwardsburg, Paul Chapman, said we were building the Ewok village.”
In addition to Brosnan, she has worked with Postmasters Bryan Younger and Dave Evans.
“Bryan and I started out together,” she said. “He was four months ahead of me. We were clerks in the office. After 2 1/2 years, I left for dairy farming and to raise my kids.”
Dohm’s sons are John, 39, who bought Ed and Stella’s farm on M-51; and Joe, 35, bought a home on the creek near his parents.
Joe has been an EMT with Cassopolis ambulance and is on the Pokagon Township Fire Department.
“My (four) grandkids are close so I can spoil the heck out of them,” Judy said.