By ARDEN BASTIA For 30 years, mail carrier Charlie Donovan has delivered birthday cards, bills, car payments, and newspapers to homes and businesses in the Hillsgrove neighborhood, just off Post Road. But Donovan has delivered so much more than
For 30 years, mail carrier Charlie Donovan has delivered birthday cards, bills, car payments, and newspapers to homes and businesses in the Hillsgrove neighborhood, just off Post Road.
But Donovan has delivered so much more than envelopes and stamps. He’s delivered smiles, a friendly face and letters to Santa, and collected food the RI Community Food Bank.
On August 31, Donovan retired from 34 years as a postal worker.
“You get attached to the neighborhood,” he said in a recent interview. This reporter joined Donovan for some of the residential portion of his 362-stop route, and over the course of the hour, we were stopped a number of times by neighbors wishing him well on his retirement, some even giving him cards and gifts.
“I’m just doing my job,” Donovan said, with a shy smile, after each encounter.
Donovan didn’t plan on being a postal worker. He originally planned to work for the IRS, but after a friend told him the IRS would be downsizing, he chose to apply at the Post Office instead.
Over three decades later, at 61, Donovan is ready to hang up his uniform and retire. But working for the U.S. Postal Service has never felt like a job to Donovan.
“It’s like coming to work everyday with your friends,” he said, adding that he considers the neighborhood tucked between the airport and Amtrak to be his own, even though he lives across the city near Gorton Pond. “The people in this neighborhood know me better than my own. It’s amazing how many of them have my personal cell phone number.”
Donovan has gone to Patriots games with neighbors, even attending some of their children’s weddings.
“This is the best part of my job, just talking to people. Because it means something to everybody,” he said. “I remember one woman told me ‘Just seeing you come down the street, it makes everything okay.’ And that will stick with me for a while. I’m just delivering bills, but to some people I’m delivering information. They were scared to touch their mail during the pandemic; they were scared to leave their house. I found myself paying attention to the news just to keep them safe.”
Donovan says he won’t get misty-eyed when leaving his last postal shift, but he said the memories of interacting with neighborhood kids “might get me a little bit.”
“During COVID, usually I’d put my hand up to the glass, and the kids would do the same,” said Donovan.
Donovan has seen kids in the neighborhood grow up, learn to drive, get married, and have kids of their own.
He shared the story of one kid, Jeff, who he helped get a job at the Post Office. Jeff, whose family didn’t have much while he was growing up, would circle the neighborhood on his bike, running into Donovan. Once he was of age, Donovan coached him through the postal worker application and interview process.
“That kid did everything I asked him to do, and he got the job. They started him in Westerly in the middle of winter,” said Donovan. “He finds a girl, he gets married, he buys a house, and now he rides around in a real nice car.”
Jeff transferred into Warwick recently, and will hopefully take over Donovan’s route when he retires.
During the holiday season, Donovan takes special care to collect letters to Santa from neighborhood kids.
“I’d would take care of the kids personally in this neighborhood,” he said. “Parents will let me know that their kid is leaving a letter for Santa. We probably collect about 200 Santa letters in Warwick.”
Donovan makes sure that each kid who writes to Santa gets a response the very next day. He often adds extra details like the names of pets or siblings, adding to the magic.
“It’s always fun. Kids will say, ‘Wow, Santa’s quick.’ Yeah, he has a lot of helpers. So you play it up for them, and you don’t know if they’re going to remember, but they may go another year or two believing in Santa,” he said. “Just to see them smile is everything. It goes back to the children, that’s what a lot of this is all about, so these children know, especially is there’s a problem, that there’s also a safe space.”
Donovan has helped create more safe spaces for kids throughout Warwick by mentoring students at Oakland Beach Elementary School as part of the VOWS program.
He shared the story of working with one student, Stephen, who came from a difficult home life. Stephen’s father would spend late nights at a local bar, often with Stephen in tow. The only day Stephen would show up to school is the day he got to work with Donovan.
“I couldn’t show up everyday, but I would love to. I’d show up on my day off if it means this kid got through school,” he said. “Turns out, Stephen had trouble getting up for school, so I bought him an alarm clock. Next thing you know, the principal calls to tell me he’s been in school all week.”
Donovan followed Stephen through Oakland Beach, Gorton Middle School, and Warwick Veterans High School, even attending his graduation and his wedding.
Donovan’s seen the neighborhood change since delivering his first letter there 30 years ago.
“The airport’s changed the area quite a bit,” he said, adding that tensions were high when neighbors were worried about losing their houses. Donovan’s seen the neighborhood in times of joy, like celebrating the birth of a new neighbor or graduations, and in times of struggle, like the recession in 2008 or when military members would get deployed.
“But just seeing the kids grow up and move on to school. And now they have jobs and have children, and it’s like a family,” he said.
Donovan has a family of his own. He and his wife, Susan, are high school sweethearts; they’ve been together since Charlie was a student at Pilgrim and Susan was at Warwick Veterans High School. They have a son, a daughter and two big huskies.
Donovan hasn’t just seen the neighborhood change, but the post service as well.
He described delivering mail during the pandemic “like Christmas in July,” sharing that he often had to make two trips. The first for paper mail; the second for packages.
“I’d have so many packages, I couldn’t fit them all in the truck,” he said.
Early in the pandemic, he delivered more than mail to some neighbors. He offered to run an errand for one elderly neighbor, expecting a short list of one or two items. Instead, he got a lengthy shopping list for Dave’s, and he promptly delivered her groceries later that day.
Donovan shared that he even found himself attending neighborhood meetings to stay informed for the residents, as they’d frequently ask him about changes to the neighborhood.
Neighbors and residents were shocked and surprised by Donovan’s retirement. They found out via a post on Facebook made by Diane Galoski in a Warwick community page.
Galoski is the owner of Bailey, a sweet yellow lab that greets Donovan each time he comes to the mailbox. Donovan admitted that Bailey “is a little sad” that he’s retiring. “I have to tell her we’re breaking up,” he said, laughing.
“It’ll be like I’m on vacation at first,” Donovan said of his retirement, admitting that it “doesn’t feel real yet.”
Donovan is looking forward to working on his 1967 Mustang convertible, fishing, hiking, and spending time with family during retirement.
Postal worker Charlie Donovan says one of the best parts about his job is the furry friends, like Bailey the yellow lab. (Warwick Beacon photos)
Donovan, who retires on Aug. 31, says he considers this neighborhood his own, even though he lives by Gorton pond.