by Laura Kussman
After 36 years working for the postal service on Orcas Island, Eastsound postmaster Donna McNeil will no longer be part of the mail business.
McNeil, who doesn’t have children, jokes that unless her older brother has kids, she will be the last in her lineage to work for the postal service.
“It’s the end of an era,” she says.
McNeil’s relatives, the Cayou family, were some of the first settlers on Orcas. Her mother worked at the Eastsound post office, her grandmother was postmaster of Deer Harbor from 1968 to 1971 and her great uncle built and established the dock that received mail by steamship from Port Townsend three generations ago. He brought mail to the neighboring hamlets of Orcas by rowboat at a time when roads didn’t connect. This rich history and deep connection to the community made Donna invaluable to the job, and a “master of her trade.”
“In order to get the title of postmaster, you have to play the game,” she said. “I decided I wanted to play that game.”
McNeil, who was born and raised on island, started working as a cleaner at the post office when she was 18. She saw an opportunity to be a relief carrier on Orcas in 1983 and took it, leaving college in her final quarter. She became a full-time carrier, then clerk, then postmaster at the Orcas Landing office.
“This work, it’s where my whole life has been. I enjoyed my time at the Orcas post office. It was like having lots and lots of grandparents; they were all great people,” McNeil says.
In 2015, she transferred to the position of postmaster in Eastsound.
“It was one of the better jobs to get. … It has allowed me to sustain a living and retire early,” she said.
The postal service is overseen by the government, but not operated by it, since post offices became self-supportive in the 1970s. The postmaster is responsible for managing employees, including hiring and firing and balancing the budget.
“It has changed so much since I started,” McNeil said. “The USPS is turning into a parcel business. We used to have trays and trays of letters rolling in. Letters have decreased I would say by 75 percent since I started. Computers are killing what we used to know the postal service as. There are pluses and minuses to change.”
Computers and machines have replaced manual manpower and local subcenters for mail processing. Character readers and mail sorter machines read handwriting and process thousands of letters a minute. Mail forwarding can now be rerouted in-transit, arriving to doorsteps faster.
Prior to computers, postal employees had to sort everything and break it down into boxes.
“Now the mail arrives sorted,” McNeil says. “We honestly couldn’t manually sort now – there are too many people on Orcas.”
Today, there are double the amount of P.O. boxes in the Eastsound office as when McNeil started in 1983, and the routes have grown immensely as well. Previously, she was the only route out of Eastsound. Now there are three, all serving 500-plus mailboxes.
A new postmaster has not yet been selected. The job will be posted as a transfer position to current postmasters within the postal service union district Area 2, then it will open up to the Western district, then to lower employees.
During her retirement, McNeil plans to spend time with her husband hunting, fishing and relaxing at their off-grid cabin on the mainland.
“I’ll miss working with the public. As a homebody, I won’t get to see a lot of the people I used to see. I’m looking forward to catching up on down time,” McNeil said.