EAST WINTHROP — Sometime Tuesday, Sept. 30, today David Shepherd will close up the East Winthrop Post Office, climb into his truck and make the drive to his Hallowell home. It’s the same drive he’s made countless times before, but today it will be so very different. This time there will be no return trip to the little office or the friends Shepherd made over the years as the postmaster there. The office, and Shepherd, will learn to navigate the future without each other.

“It’s like sending a child off to college or something,” Shepherd said Monday, a day before the retirement that will bring his 35-year postal career to a close. “I can come back any time, but I won’t have a key.”

Shepherd, 58, began his career in 1979 working a letter sorting machine in Portland. He eventually worked his way up to a district driver inspector, testing postal service drivers. He liked the job, but the roughly hour-long drive began to wear on him. Shepherd took a postmaster job in the mid-coast town of Edgecomb. His chance to take a job closer to home came up in 2002 when the position in East Winthrop opened up. Shepherd said he’s filled in at other post offices in the area, but he always wanted to come back to East Winthrop. The pace and personality of the place have made it a good fit.

“There’s only one person scheduled here every day,” Shepherd said. “It’s kind of a one-man operation.”

Shepherd would continue working in the office, but the U.S. Postal Service has decided to change the office’s hours as part of a nationwide cost-cutting effort. Beginning Monday, the office will provide six hours of window service each weekday. The office will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except during a 30-minute lunch break from 1 to 1:30 p.m. The window will be open from 8-11:30 a.m. on Saturday.

The planned changes have been part of a review process called Post Plan, which reduces window hours at rural post offices as an alternative to closing them. The postal service published a list in May 2012 of about 13,000 post offices, about 400 of which are in Maine. Most of the post offices will be open four or six hours per day, but some will have their hours reduced to two per day.

Shepherd is disappointed by the decision to scale back the hours.

“I’d like to see it stay open a little bit more,” he said.

Shepherd said the office, which rests along the heavily-commuted U.S. Route 202, turns a profit.

“It’s a good location for people to stop in,” Shepherd said. “There’s rarely a line out the door, but it’s steady.”

Many of those who stopped by the office in recent days came to say goodbye to Shepherd as much as to mail a package. Shepherd greeted them warmly, doling out a fair amount of handshakes and hugs.

John Mitchell of Winthrop, who stops by the post office at least once a week, bid Shepherd farewell Monday and warned his replacement, Todd Settlemire, of the big shoes he was about to fill.

Mitchell later recalled a time a letter meant for him was misaddressed while he was out of town. Shepherd noticed the error and held onto it for Mitchell until he returned to the post office.

“He’s just a man who exceeded expectations,” said John Mitchell of Winthrop. “It’s just who he is. It’s just his life.”

Dick Poulin of Winthrop goes to the post office every day when he’s not in Alaska and Florida. Even while in those states, there have been times Poulin has called Shepherd to take care of a mail problem in Winthrop.

“David goes above and beyond,” said Poulin, who with his wife spent several minutes Monday chatting with Shepherd in the parking lot. “He takes care of the customers like you would not believe. We all love David.”

That love was on full display Saturday night when the nearby East Winthrop Baptist Church hosted a retirement party for Shepherd. Dozens of people packed the hall.

“It was wonderful,” Shepherd said. “I was overwhelmed, really, with how many people came. It’s such a nice community.”

It’s the people, Shepherd says, that make retirement so difficult. Getting to know his customers and finding ways to help them send off their important packages have made Shepherd happy for more than a dozen years.

“I’ve had younger people come in and say, ‘I’ve never sent a package before,'” Shepherd said. “I like waiting on people. It’s like part of my family.”

There are fewer packages these days as more and more information is shared electronically, but Shepherd is as hopeful about the post office’s future as he is his own.

“I think there’s a real need for the post office,” he said. “I think the post office will survive the foreseeable future.”

As for his own future, Shepherd is still working that out. He used to lead classes headed up by the post office that trained people how to buy and sell on eBay. The class also helped promote the post office’s ability to ship products sold online.

“We did a lot of those,” Shepherd said. “They were well received.”

He enjoyed teaching the class so much that he offered the program at an area adult education program. He’d like to do that again. Shepherd also has a fair share of items he hopes to sell on eBay.

The first thing Shepherd wants to do is take some time off. He said it’s been a couple of years since he’s had a vacation.

“I’m not really looking for another job, but there are some things I’d like to do,” he said. “It’s a life-changing experience. It’s like changing jobs. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just hope for the best.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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