The season formerly known as spring may be on sabbatical, but for Jeanne McAlary and her neighbors, spotting Robin O’Neill, their longtime and much beloved mail carrier, darting around outside their homes is a harbinger of warmth.
“She is really a ray of sunshine. Every day, even in the bad weather, she always has something nice to say,” says McAlary. “It’s a very comforting thing to see Robin.”
O’Neill, 56, of Brick, has worked for U.S. Postal Service for 30 years, and for half of that time she’s driven and walked the same 10-mile route, which wends through neighborhoods dotted with Cape Cods and colonials between Wall and Allaire roads, west of Route 71.
These days it’s not so easy thing for mail carriers to chitchat, not with piles of Amazon packages stacked atop their usual loads and electronic sensors installed in select mailboxes along their routes tracking their progress.
“She’s very refreshing, especially in today’s world when nobody seems to have time for anybody,” McAlary says. “They’ve all got their heads down in their phone.”
Recently, O’Neill had news about herself to share: The postal service was giving her an award.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, she’s hardly one to toot her own horn, but this was a pretty big deal: Over the course of three decades on the job, O’Neill has never had an accident while driving.
O’Neill’s achievement is doubly impressive when you consider that this is New Jersey we’re talking about, not the wide open plains of Kansas.
In a state this congested, fender benders are a accepted form of self-expression. Yet O’Neill hasn’t so much as side-swiped a car mirror as she’s made her rounds, even though she says the traffic zips past her so fast along Allaire Road “the truck shakes.”
The honor puts O’Neill in select company. Just 10,000 or so of the postal service’s more than 300,000 carriers and truck drivers have been recognized for driving 30 years or a million miles accident-free since the award program started in 2005.
As a winner, O’Neill gets enough of a bonus to take her husband Michael out to dinner at a nice restaurant, if she wants. Plus, a banner bearing her name and accomplishment will hang in the mail room of the Spring Lake Heights Post Office beside those of two other recent winners, Paul Viggiano of Point Pleasant and Donald Sullivan of Brick.
No one is happier for O’Neill than the 581 customers along her route.
“I think that’s a testament to her. She’s cautious. She’s conscientious,” McAlary says. “I’m sure if you asked anybody, they would say their mail is always correct and on time.”
A graduate of Manasquan High School, O’Neill says it’s hard to believe she’s been on the job for 30 years. For many years, the children on the route used to mob O’Neill the week before school started to get their letters from the public elementary school telling them which teacher they’d have that year. (Now students just sign on to an app to get their class assignments.) Today, some of those kids are young adults starting families of their own, O’Neill marvels.
“When I first got this job, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay this long. But when people say time goes fast, it really does,” says O’Neill, whose 25-year-old son, Michael, is in training to become a police officer.
“Now I have like a bond with my customers. I’ve had opportunities to take other routes, but I feel like they’re almost a second family.”
The feeling is mutual. These days, you don’t often hear someone described as “a ray of sunshine.”
“Have you known Robin for long?” Louise Havey, another customer, asked a reporter who was inquiring about O’Neill.
Only for one day, the reporter said.
“That’s all it takes,” Havey assured him.”Everybody loves her.”
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