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Special delivery

A postman with a big heart delivers much more than mail.

By LANE DeGREGORY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 11, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG -- On his day off, the mailman returns to his route.

He drives a beat-up Cherokee with a homemade trailer hitched to the bumper, parks in front of a little blue house on a corner lot tangled with weeds.

He carries no mailbag. He has nothing to deliver. Except his time.

The mailman unlocks his trailer and rolls a red lawn mower onto the yard. He tugs a battered ball cap over his sandy hair and wades into the weeds.

"This is Jack's house," says the mailman.

It all started at Jack's house.

Eric Wills' postal route takes him on a 10-mile hike through the center of the city.

He starts with businesses along Central Avenue, but most of his route is residential. The neighborhoods are mixed, racially and economically. Immaculate two-story homes tower over boarded-up bungalows.

Wills, 30, has been walking the same streets for six years. When he was offered a better route, closer to his home in the Northeast Park area of St. Petersburg, he refused. Somewhere along these cracked sidewalks he found his path.

These are his people: all 480.

He knows who's on vacation, whose in-laws have moved in, who gets the best catalogs, the most bills. When mail starts coming addressed just to Mrs., he knows there's no longer a Mr.

He delivers directly to each house - climbs those steps, stands on those porches. Elderly residents call their thanks through mail slots.

For some, Wills is the only person who ever comes to the door.

Ask him about the people on his route and he'll tell you about Miss Lucille, 86, who worked on Navy ships during World War II; and Miss Betty, 83, whose Irish wolfhound weighs more than she does.

And he'll talk about Jack and his overgrown lawn.

- - -

Iron banisters flank the front steps of Jack's little blue house. Two summers ago, they were strangled with vines. To get the mail to the front door, Wills had to fight through a jungle.

The mailman didn't know much about Jack, except that he was old and seldom got out. A frail-looking girlfriend who didn't seem to speak English lived with him.

For weeks, the mailman struggled through the thicket, silently cursing the man who wouldn't mow his yard. One day, he heard a voice. His conscience? God?

Someone should mow that yard!

Me.

When Wills' letter bag was empty, he drove home and loaded the lawn mower into the back of his Cherokee.

Then he returned to the middle of his mail route.

He knocked on Jack's door, said he wanted to cut the yard. Just to help. No charge. "That yard is the least of my worries," the old man barked.

So Wills mowed that corner lot. Two weeks later, he mowed it again. Even after the old man moved into a nursing home, the mailman kept mowing his yard. As long as Jack's girlfriend was getting the mail, the mailman would look after the lawn.

For two years, Wills has been cutting Jack's lawn. That yard led to another, and another, and another . . .

- - -

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Wills pours gas into the push mower in Jack's yard and bends to pull the cord. The ancient engine chokes to life.

Wills is tall, with broad shoulders. His calves are thick knots from hiking his route, from pushing that mower on his day off. He longs for a rider, or at least a commercial grade push model. But with the price of gas these days, he can barely afford to fill his tank.

He turns the mower to the sidewalk, shoves his wire-rim glasses higher on his nose. As he starts to cut, a car pulls up and a dark-haired woman gets out.

"Aren't you the mailman?" she asks.

Wills nods and shuts off the mower.

"My mother lives here. Jack's girlfriend?" says the woman. "Didn't you get her note?"

- - -

In time, word spread about the mowing mailman. Much of it, Wills spread himself.

Once he started seeing overgrown yards not as eyesores but as a sign someone needed help, he began knocking on doors along his route. He told churches about his service. Other letter carriers sent referrals.

Wills cuts 15 yards now - for free. In the winter, he comes every two weeks; in summer, he tries to make it weekly. His record is eight yards in a day.

He works alone, in silence, except for the hum of the mower. No iPod or headphones intrude. He says he thinks about nothing. Everything. Mowing, he says, gives him peace.

Several years ago, Wills hurt his foot playing pickup basketball. Every step was agony. He worried he'd have to give up his postal route. So he prayed. And God healed him, he says.

He had been searching for a way to give back. But until he got engulfed in Jack's yard, he wasn't sure how. Now he knows: His calling smells like grass.

"It's just my little way of making a difference," he says. Some of these folks wish they could get out and mow; many can't afford $100 a month for a lawn service. They sit at home, watching through their windows while things get worse.

"A yard is a reflection of the person who lives there," Wills says. "So why not help them feel better?"

Lucille Formanek, 86, calls Wills "a blessing from heaven." A self-described old maid, she has lived alone since her mother died. "He's such a nice, strong young man."

Wills and his brother built a trailer to haul lawn gear. They painted a stick man on the side, mowing around a huge brown cross. Sprayed-on letters say, "Lawns for the Lord."

But the mailman's ministry includes more than mowing.

He rented a bush hog to clear an aged man's five lots; carried out garbage for a retired nun - then paved a path to her garbage bin; dug up azaleas for a single mom; moved heavy planters for a widow; brought his 7-year-old daughter to play piano for a lonely old lady. Recently he replaced a light bulb for an elderly woman who said she hadn't been able to read her thermostat for weeks.

"In all that time, I was the only person who'd come to her door," Wills said. "What if I hadn't come?"

- - -

The little blue house has a postage stamp porch. Shaggy shrubs fan across the mailbox. Usually, Jack's girlfriend is good about bringing in the mail.

But just before Thanksgiving, letters started piling up.

All those holiday fliers buried the note.

It's folded in the bottom of the mailbox, written on torn paper. Wills fishes it out and walks across the yard. He smooths the message over the handle of his mower.

To: Mr. Mailman

Thank you for your help cutting the grass. Jack died last night and I will be moving out. Again, thank you very much.

The note was signed Zaida. Wills had never known her name.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.

Want to help?

If you want to help the mowing mailman, or if you know someone who needs his help, contact him at (727) 642-3971.

 

[Last modified December 10, 2007, 21:00:54]


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